Origami is the latest report back from Theo Bleckmann on his explorations into the unsuspected emotional and expressive possibilities of the voice in an unfettered group context. It is also a meticulously constructed, exquisitely detailed collection of songs that ranges across centuries, continents and musical styles for its inspiration. Origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding, provides a metaphor for how the music takes shape and enfolds the listener. Building on his earlier collaboration with New York guitarist Ben Monder, No Boat, Bleckmann creates lush environments through overdubbing and live electronic layering, embedding the often wordless vocals in diverse rhythms and textures. Shifting from song to sound and from composition to improvisation, he displays a mercurial aesthetic that encompasses (at least) jazz, folk, minimalism, ambient, noise, and free improv.
His original compositions, combining jazz and American classical influences (Ives, Copland), and with an occasional nod to his countryman Bach, often reference a chorale-like serenity. “Origami” (set to a poem in Japanese by Reiko Aoki) begins simply but becomes both fuller and freer as the group collectively embellishes it. “DNA” features a Latinish beat and intricate octave-displaced counterpoint; it is modeled after unit-origami, in which hundreds of geometric shapes are assembled into a larger unit. “Nova Scotia” layers folk-like melodies into ambient soundscapes, restlessly bringing in new lines over previously established chords; it could be a kind of ambient ghost story, a preternatural lullaby in which innocence and experience (or good and evil) contest with no clear resolution. “Without Sky,” written for Ben Monder, evokes the plains of the middle America; it segues with the group improv “Rhombiododecahedron,” which could exemplify Out critic Andrew Velez’s characterization of Theo’s music as an “aural Rorshach test” from “a singer who has only recently fallen to earth.” Urban and rural melt together in the prayer-like improvisation “Alloy,” in duo with Skuli Sverrisson and sung through a megaphone. The four standards establish an historical perspective even as their completely personal treatment recontexts them in the present. Machaut’s courtly love plaint “Douce dame jolie” takes on an obsessed, gently ominous tone, while Brecht-Eilser’s anti-Nazi tribute “An den kleinen Radioapparat” is as embodied as direct testimony. “I Remember You” seems caught in some trip-hop psychedelic deconstruction of time, the singer himself eventually dissolving into the past-and-gone with the loved one; “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” is autumnal retrospection and heartfelt hymn.
Layering and silence are as much a part of this music as surprise and reflection. With its subtle overlaps of ethereality and pathos, sublimity and dread, knowingness and outright irreverence, ironic detachment and tenderness, Origami cultivates the art of music-making with and beyond language for the expression of life’s fleeting, inchoate experience and underlying connectedness.
Theo Bleckmann (b. Dortmund, 1966) is a protegé of Sheila Jordan and a long-time Meredith Monk Ensemble singer with a three and a half octave range. His many collaborations in the fields of jazz, contemporary music, theatre, dance, and performance art, including work with Anthony Braxton, Mark Dresser, Dave Douglas, Philip Glass, The Bang On A Can Allstars, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and Mark Morris Dance Group, underscore his versatility. He was commissioned by the Whitney Museum at Philip Morris to compose an evening-long performance art piece, and in November-December 2000 starred off-Broadway in the New York Public Theater production of John Moran’s The Book of the Dead (Second Avenue). His duo CDs with pianist Kirk Nurock are on Traumton.
Ben Monder (b. New York, 1962) has played on over 60 recordings as a sideman (CDs with Frank Kimbrough, Donny McCaslin, Reid Anderson, Maria Schneider, and on Songlines with Patrick Zimmerli, were released in 2000) and has three CDs as a leader: Flux (Songlines), Dust (Arabesque), and Excavation (Arabesque, featuring Theo).
Matt Moran (b. Mansfield, CT, 1972), studied at the New England Conservatory (M.M. in jazz composition) with Joe Maneri and has performed/recorded with Gunther Schuller, Lionel Hampton, Paul Bley, Combustible Edison, and Ellery Eskelin. He leads Sideshow (Songs of Charles Ives, CRI – Blue Shift), Slavic Soul Party! (s/t, Bell Cry Music), and his Trio, and plays in the Mat Maneri Quintet and John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet.
Skuli Sverrisson (b. Reykjavik, 1966) toured ‘91-’96 with Alan Holdsworth, has performed with Derek Bailey, Mark Dresser, Ikue Mori, and Peter Brotzmann, and is Music Director for Laurie Anderson, touring in their electronic opera Songs and Stories from Moby Dick and working on her forthcoming record for Nonesuch with Lou Reed, Hal Wilner etc. He performs/records with Pachora, Chris Speed’s Yeah No (three CDs on Songlines), the Ben Monder Trio, and Jim Black, and on Songlines is also on Brad Shepik’s The Well. His solo electro-acoustic CD, Seremonie, is on Extreme; duos are with Anthony Burr (Desist, Staalplaat) and Hilmar Jensson (Kiar, Bad Taste).
John Hollenbeck (b. Binghamton NY, 1968) performs solo, duo (with Theo, Static Still, EARrelevant), in small groups (Ellery Eskelin, Hank Roberts, Mark Dresser, Dave Liebman), big bands (Bob Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra, WDR Big Band, Maritime Jazz Orchestra), klezmer (David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness, Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Project), new tango (Pablo Ziegler), and contemporary music (he created and toured the percussion score for Meredith Monk’s latest, Magic Frequencies). This year his debut CD as leader, The Drum Major Instinct (which features Ben and Theo) has been released on CRI, and he received the IAJE’s Gil Evans Fellowship Commission.
“Bleckmann has an astonishingly supple instrument at his disposal, a rich tenor that can satisfy most conventional technical requirements but can also generate a wealth of fascinating colors, characters, and sui generis languages…With knowledge of multiple musical traditions – from Tin Pan Alley to Fluxus-style experimentalism – Bleckmann produces a music of kaleidoscopic energy..The overall mood is fairly serene but one that flickers with intensity from varied and sometimes-unknown sources…This music shimmers and pulses. And Bleckmann soars freely in his unique soundworld, not so much making points of contact with the many traditions represented by these tunes as drawing them out into his own space, rendering them a part of his own musical cosmos. The delicate chant of ‘Douce Dame Jolie,’ the quirky ‘Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries,’ and the formalized delivery of ‘An den kleinen Radioapparat’ all possess a nearly alien quality, as if they are lullabies sung to you by cloud creatures of some sort (though this world is not quite so delicate as all that, since there is always a dark harmony or a clang of feedback waiting in the next measure). While this is a program of set songs, there is a great deal of wide-open space for improvisation. Good thing, too, considering the band assembled here. Monder contributes typically thoughtful and gentle solos that end up in unexpected places (as on ‘Like Brother and Sister’); Moran continues to carve out his own vibraphonic niche, stocked by his highly-patterned approach combined with overtones and singing lines; and the Hollenbeck/Sverrisson team is as resourceful as one could want (from the tattoo of ‘Static Still’ to the impressionism of ‘Without Sky’). And while the overall mood of the disc is melancholic, these fellows show their humor on ‘I Remember You’…A fine program.” — Jason Bivins, One Final Note
“Origami occupies a distinct niche somewhere between choral chamber music, folk song, ambient minimalism, and downtempo jazz improvisation…The supporting cast on Origami consists of sympathetic players with plenty of experience in and out of the traditional jazz idiom…They tend to actively reinforce the general dark, consonant flavor of these pieces. Bleckmann’s vocal performance includes verbal and non-verbal expositions, regularly using overdubs and understated electronic effects to introduce texture and counterpoint…For listeners interested in a fresh, personal angle to vocal jazz, Origami has amazing properties.” — Nils Jacobson, Allaboutjazz.com
****1/2 — Down Beat