|A Clear Midnight – Kurt Weill and America at Milton Court
L-R: Julia Hülsmann Theo Bleckmann, Marc Muellbauer, Tom Arthurs, Heinrich Köbberling
Julia Hülsmann Quartet with Theo Bleckmann. A Clear Midnight – Kurt Weill and America
(Milton Court, 22nd November. 2015 EFG LJF. Review by Alison Bentley)
Unsung Weill – German pianist Julia Hülsmann found a number of Kurt Weill songs which had been cut from the original shows. She included them, along with some better known ones, on her latest album for ECM: A Clear Midnight. Inspired by Weill’s settings of Walt Whitman poems, she set some to music herself, drawing all the songs together on this gig in the group’s improvisational yet disciplined style.
Hülsmann has always enjoyed working with singers, (she decribed it in this 2014 interview as ‘…a very direct way to make music.’) and German-born New York resident Theo Bleckmann was her choice for this project. She augmented her long-term trio (Marc Muellbauer: double bass; Heinrich Köbberling: drums) with the UK’s Tom Arthurs on trumpet- the four have worked together frequently, which created a sense of ease and trust on stage.
Weill’s Your Technique opened, a slow Latin groove, Bleckmann singing the witty lyrics in delicate falsetto, sprinkled lightly with cymbal sounds from Köbberling. Mullbauer’s bass solo was sure-footed and clear in the designer acoustic of the Milton Court theatre. Arthurs joined them for Weill’s Great Big Sky, with its Sondheim-esque piano motifs and shifting time signatures. The shapes of the piano solo were almost visual in their clarity; sometimes pulled out of shape, then brought back. Speak Low was given some shiny new chords, but Bleckmann sang the melody unadorned. You thought of the gorgeous tone rather than the lyrics. He didn’t slide up to the notes in a jazz crooner’s style but hit them dead centre, with a pure sound that seemed to float above him. He slightly bent the notes occasionally; or he’d bring the mic close for a sforzando effect. When the voice harmonised with Arthurs’ trumpet, it was hard to tell them apart. Bleckmann seemed to relish Ogden Nash’s witty lyrics to Who Am I? – with its lyrics rhyming ‘genius’ and ‘schizophrenious’, it could almost have been a Dave Frishberg song. The clambering arpeggios of Hülsmann’s solo fell into block chords thickened by the drum sounds.
Alabama Song was played by the piano trio, bass and piano sharing the melody over sparkling cymbals and piano patterns; it broke out into no time, no changes- just the melody- bass and drums playing fast and loose. Mack the Knife also had a radical makeover- a re-worked translation which highlighted the sense of menace, set against the exquisite, slow piano chords and plaintive trumpet harmony. Each verse ended with a dissonant note that led chillingly into a key change, owing more to Schoenberg than Louis Armstrong.
Hülsmann had arranged Walt Whitman’s civil war poem Beat! Beat! Drums! into a spaciously funky groove, with trumpet spluttering evocatively before bursting into long powerful bugle calls. The piano solo repeatedly beat single drumming notes along with Bleckmann’s percussive noises. In Weill’s Little Tin God Bleckmann created his own choir with looped vocal lines, over the piano’s clockwork-like phrases (the Little Tin God in question being the clock on the shelf) Arthurs’ trumpet had real fire, fast and free, as the music expressed a planet without rules- until the clockwork motif returned.
September Song (beautifully arranged by Muellbauer) began colla voce, the perfect vocal tone a balancing act over the wonderfully dissonant new chords. The bridge was chillingly slow and tense (‘September, November…’ mixed with some eerie overtone chanting) before resolving into the reassuring chords of ‘these few precious days I’ll spend with you.’ Hülsmann’s solo had the warmth and delicacy of the late John Taylor, with a little bluesiness. A Clear Midnight (Hülsmann’s setting of a Whitman poem) started with a single vocal note over changing chords- distilled down to an essence of voice. A groove emerged mysteriously from the Köbberling’s free drumming, his solo full of rich textures over harmon-muted trumpet lines. A Noiseless Patient Spider, another Hülsmann setting of Whitman, had spinning piano and trumpet riffs as the spider ‘…launched forth filament, filament, filament out of itself.’ The groove built rockily behind Arthurs’ impassioned solo, Kenny Wheeler-like in its huge leaps. Humour concluded- Weill’s Apple Jack, a slinky tale of Eve wooing Adam with apple schnapps. Swing time became broken up, then free, then a little raunchy.
The set was long but never seemed so- it was perfectly-paced and completely captivating. A superb conclusion to this year’s Festival.
Alison Bentley is a singer and teaches singing. Her music is on Soundcloud