Julia Hülsmann Quartet w/Theo Bleckmann: A Clear Midnight (ECM 2418)

A Clear Midnight

Julia Hülsmann Quartet
w/ Theo Bleckmann
A Clear Midnight – Kurt Weill and America

Theo Bleckmann vocals
Julia Hülsmann piano
Tom Arthurs trumpet, flugelhorn
Marc Muellbauer double bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums
Recorded June 2014 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In his book Kurt Weill: An Illustrated Life, biographer Jurgen Schebera shares the following anecdote from behind the scenes of the composer’s renowned The Threepenny Opera:

“One day the lead, Harald Paulsen, who had previously played mostly in operettas and was an idol of Berlin’s female theater audience, insisted on wearing a frightful blue bow tie with his suit. [Bertolt] Brecht saved the day: ‘Let’s leave him as he is, oversweet and charming. Weill and I will introduce him with a Moritat that tells of his gruesome and disgraceful deeds. The effect made by the light-blue bow will be all the more curious.’ Thus the ‘Moritat von Mackie Messer’ (Mack the Knife) was born practically overnight.”

The story of Weill’s most well-known song is indeed illustrative of a life filled with sudden changes—none so dramatic, in the most multivalent sense of the term, as his fleeing of Nazi Germany to take up residence in New York. His transition, as one alliterative songbook title would have it, from Berlin to Broadway gave his music new audiences, just as his music gave audiences something new. Although it would be decades from his death in 1950 before his work would gain recognition beyond the handful of popular numbers, Weill has now become a household name in songs of the stage.

Pianist Julia Hülsmann carries over the same quartet—with trumpeter Tom Arthurs, bassist Marc Muellbauer, and drummer Heinrich Köbberling—from 2013’s In Full View and to that outfit welcomes vocalist Theo Bleckmann to celebrate Weill in America. The result of an invitation to participate in the Kurt Weill Festival held is Dessau, Germany, Hülsmann’s new project grew to prominence until it landed in ECM’s lap with every edge smoothed to jigsaw compatibility. Every new arrangement comes from within the group, with Muellbauer and Hülsmann taking most of the credit in that vein.


Bleckmann is a natural tenor whose voice combines the smooth, pop sensibilities of French singer Louis Philippe and the intuition of Meredith Monk, with whom he has incidentally worked. (It’s Monk, in fact, to whom Bleckmann most overtly alludes in “Little Tin God” when he borrows the wordless lilt of the travelers from her Book of Days.) The song itself comes by way of Lost in the Stars, and concerns itself with the idolization of money over God. Looped, multi-tracked voices and dissonant clockwork pianism emphasize its lyrical unease, the full quartet emerging only to break itself down like a set into resonant finish. The lesser-performed “Your Technique” and “Great Big Sky,” both from the annals of the Unsung Weill, are equally haunting in their present guises. In addition to their delicate prosody, both feature colorful touches from the rhythm section and, in the latter instance, shine light on a largely forlorn set list. And even though “Speak Low” (from One Touch of Venus) occupies the opposite end of the obscurity spectrum, its retrospective mood and expository finesse align it well with the lesser-knowns. It is second perhaps only to the above-mentioned “Mack The Knife,” which in Hülsmann and Bleckmann’s ponderous co-arrangement takes on such lucidity as to become something of its own. Arthurs’s trumpeting makes noteworthy additions to this introductory track as well.

In addition to Brecht’s self-aware moroseness (as filtered through Marc Blitzstein’s superseding English adaptation), we are treated to other finely crafted lyrics by Anne Ronell (“Your Technique”), Maxwell Anderson (“September Song” and “Little Tin God”), Ira Gershwin (“This Is New”), Ogden Nash (“Speak Low”), and Langston Hughes (“Great Big Sky”). Hülsmann’s tracing and Arthurs’s muted trumpet transform “September Song” (from Knickerbocker Holiday) from oil to watercolor, while “This Is New” (from Lady in the Dark) spins its key changes like a web of attraction into a blissfully modal tail. Likeminded enchantments abound in two gorgeously realized instrumentals. “Alabama Song” (from Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) magnifies the album’s pristine recording, cymbals glittering like magic, while “River Chanty” (from Huckleberry Finn) finds Arthurs at the helm, leading the quartet into melodious, full-on journeying.

Along the way, Hülsmann treats the unsuspecting listener to three original settings of Walt Whitman, including the album’s title nocturnal title track and the invigorating “Beat! Beat! Drums!” But it’s in “A Noiseless Patient Spider” that both the album and its roster find untold synergy. A little bit of fun in the studio adds to the poem’s inherent charm and surrounds the clear and present center with a distant piano and flanged voice. As with everything else taking place on this clearest of midnights, it epitomizes a tasteful interpretive license. And the end effect? Let’s just say that, even if you think you’re not a Kurt Weill fan, it’s hard not to reassess after learning to appreciate these songs, and the musicians’ brilliant augmentations of them, on their own terms.

(To hear samples of A Clear Midnight, you may watch the EPK above or click here.)

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