By Brian Arsenault
In the largely forgotten film Eddie and the Cruisers, Eddie turns to his lyricist with index and middle fingers pressed together and overlapping and says: “Words and music, words and music” to express the interlinking of a song and its words. The film doesn’t really earn the line but this long titled album does.
A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill in America by the Julia Hulsmann Quartet with Theo Bleckmann singing is a brave attempt to match the words of poets and authors from Bertold Brecht to Walt Whitman, from Maxwell Anderson to Ogden Nash and, perhaps most delightfully, the poet Langston Hughes to music mostly by Kurt Weill.
Some is already classic and part of the American jazz/pop songbook and is well handled here:
“Mack the Knife” is of course present, though the lyrics used herein are even more gruesome than most of what Bobby Darin sang.
We Americans have a cultural memory of monotone sentimentalist Jimmy Durante’s version of “September Song” with all its poignancy.
“Speak Low” may be less familiar, but the Nash lyrics touch deep:
Speak low when you speak love
Our summer day withers away too soon, too soon
Those last two love songs actually written about mature people, even older people, certainly no longer in the first blush of youth. Rare that, at least before some of Sinatra’s best work.
These are among the successes of the album — words and music blending seamlessly, pleasingly. In other places, though the music seems overwhelmed by the words. Halting, dragging, squeezed uncomfortably into place.
The band’s work on three Walt Whitman poems comes to mind in this regard. These aren’t Kurt Weill songs after all and they’re not quite up to it.
Ira Gershwin’s “This is New” is, though. Gershwin listened to Brecht’s lyrics no doubt, “I’m through with a shadowy past.” Is love confusion; if so also bliss.
An underrealized aspect of the album is Theo Bleckmann’s singing. He has the pipes but almost everywhere he is so understated, his singing at times almost bordering on a narration of the poetry rather than a sung interpretation.
That’s not the case on the album’s last song “Great Big Sky,” the marvelous Langston Hughes affirmation of what it is to be a man, to be human. Bleckmann seems to let himself go here, where so often he is so restrained on the album; and the result is a soaring success.
It’s a great big sky
And there’s room enough for all,
Underneath the great big sky
Where the earth’s a little ball
And a man ain’t much
And yet a man is all
That stands up tall
Between the earth and God, beneath the great big sky
The redoubtable Manfred Eicher produced the album, which is replete with his silences between notes. Pianist Julia Hulsmann is so sensitive to Weill’s nuances and so precise. Trumpeter and flugelhorn player Tom Arthurs supports the vocals almost like another singer. The rhythm section of Marc Muellbaurer and Heinrich Kobberling is excellent as well, though as with other European jazz bands I sometimes think the drummer is truly moving to his own beat.
As I said at the start, this is a brave work. Words and music, words and music.
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Julia Hulsmann and Theo Bleckmann discuss — in German — the making of “A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill in America” and perform a few samples from the album
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Julia Hülsmann is bringing her group, (without Tom Arthurs) to the U.S. to plaand playing release concerts with Theo Bleckmann:
– April 16-17 – New York, NY at Neue Gallerie Kurt Weill,
– April 18 – Baltimore, MD at An Die Musik Live!
And the Hülsmann Trio will return for Festival concerts in June:
– June 23 – Rochester, NY at Rochester Jazz Festival
– June 24 – Ottawa, Ont at Ottawa Jazz Festival
-June 27 – Vancouver, BC at Vancouver Jazz Festival
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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.