Elegy is the ECM leader debut by vocalist and composer Theo Bleckmann. A prolific recording artist, his association with the label dates back to Meredith Monk's 2002 date Mercy and its follow-up, Impermanence, in 2008 (Bleckmann was a member of her ensemble for 15 years). His voice was also a focal point of Julia Hulsmann's quartet on 2015's Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill & America. For a singer who draws attention to himself almost as much for what he doesn't do as what he does, Elegy is a quiet yet startling offering.
Bleckmann surrounds himself with longtime collaborators Ben Monder on electric guitar and John Hollenbeck on drums, as well two ECM initiates in pianist Shai Maestro and bassist Chris Tordini. Of the 11 songs here, only four contain lyrics, the rest are showcases for Bleckmann's considerable improvisational gifts and elegant technique. The lone cover is a quietly arresting read of Stephen Sondheim's "Comedy Tonight," from the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The original is a zany, uptempo, ironic song filled with colorful instrumentation and an animated delivery. Here, Bleckmann's main accompanist, Maestro, gracefully underscores every sung line. The pace is a dirge; it crawls haltingly as his mysterious chords frame a vocal that takes only slight liberties with the melody, highlighting the poignancy in its lyric. "Fields," the very next track, contains a mere four written lines. Hollenbeck's snare and whispering cymbal work, Monder's warm, rounded guitar fills, and the rhythm section create a spacious foundation that Bleckmann is able to use as jumping-off point for group improv in one of the more fluid and dynamic tunes on the set. By contrast, the title number finds the vocalist leading his ensemble wordlessly. Monder is the first one in with controlled, distorted guitar lines that create an ambient tension. Bleckmann's singing is almost chant-like as he duets in turn with each member of the band. The track builds slowly as the vocalist moves through his range amid arco bass, single piano lines, and rolling, double-timed snare and tom-toms as electronic vocal effects add abstraction before Maestro guides it home. "To Be Shown Monks at a Certain Temple" uses many of the same elements, but the effect is quite different. Its studied pace is rife with emotional tenderness and a poetic restraint. Bleckmann's lyrics are haiku-like in articulation matched by shimmering accompaniment. Produced by Manfred Eicher, Elegy fits ECM's aesthetic to a T. More than that, however, it reveals Bleckmann's creative authority as he searches the limits of both sound and silence for an expression that utters its own name. The album is a gentle wonder; it bodes well for an enduring relationship between artist and label.