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.)

Gianluigi Trovesi/Gianni Coscia: Round About Weill (ECM 1907)

Round About Weill

Round About Weill

Gianluigi Trovesi piccolo and alto clarinets
Gianni Coscia accordion
Recorded July 2004, Radio Studio DRS, Zurich
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Master clarinetist Gianluigi Trovesi and kindred accordionist Gianni Coscia pick up where they left off on Round about Offenbach, this time giving Kurt Weill (1900-1950) a treatment such as only they can realize. The two friends make Weill their own. Or, more precisely, they make their own Weill, stirring the pot until flavors become one delicious amalgamation. Their doing so is not without precedent. Weill himself found, and forged, art wherever he went, caring not for petty distinctions between the raw and the cooked. From Berlin to Broadway, to borrow from the title of Foster Hirsch’s biography, Weill left a vivid trail of reinvigoration. Yet Trovesi and Coscia do more than pick up the pieces left in his wake, adding as they do a slurry of original counterparts along the way. The latter, in fact, strut with as much panache as the one in whose name they were fashioned.

Turning to the duo’s contributions first, we find the playful romp—replete with harrumphing bellows and Trovesi’s nimble steps—of “Dov’è la città?” setting a tone of variation and complexity. Like so much of what follows, it is a constantly evolving organism, wearing and casting off styles like quick-change artists. Moods range from the profundity of a Górecki string quartet (“Improvvisamente”) and exploratory fugue of “Ein Taifun! … Tifone? No, pioggerella!” to the provocative slants of “Boxen” and the bifurcated title homage. Trovesi manages to navigate every maze-like turn Coscia mortars into being. As with seasoned actors, not a single gesture is out of place in their comportment, as each trades lines with the other in a match of wits so even that it would go on forever without the limits of human attention cutting away the edges.

That said, this is really Coscia’s album through and through. He activates the air as a film projector lights a screen, pulling the dead into life and the living into dreams. Whether riding the effortless wave of “Tango Ballade” (from The Beggar’s Opera) or flipping the coin of excitement and reverie that is “Alabama Song,” his elaborations sing like new. Yet the alpha and omega of the program, and of the duo’s performance thereof, is Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Like the fugitives with which the satirical opera concerns itself, the music herein is resourceful, self-confident, and always heading toward pandemonium. In these scenes, Trovesi and Coscia swap places with telepathic ease, mapping gypsy jazz motifs as comfortably as balladic impulses. Like the album’s penultimate interlude, which bonds “Cumparsita Maggiorata” (by tango pioneer Gerardo Matos Rodríguez) with the traditional “Tristezze di Fra’ Martino,” these instrumental thespians dip into nostalgia only sparingly, so that the dramaturgy at hand can spring forth as if for the first time.