Jazz Vocalist Theo Bleckmann, Singing Inside Out

The adventurous Murray Hill resident takes his toys very seriously

There we were in Theo Bleckmann's tastefully spartan Murray Hill studio apartment, eating Neuhaus chocolates and discussing such advanced vocal techniques as ingressive singing (singing on the inhale, like circular breathing without completing the circle) and overtone chanting (like Tuvan throat singing, though he says he feels its effects "outside my body, because some of the overtones are so high"). But once the 44-year-old singer began showing off his "toys"—the sundry gadgets, none costing more than $5, that he uses to distort his voice in live performance as well as on the new I Dwell in Possibility (Winter & Winter)—we could have been in a Pee-Wee's Playhouse rerun or schlepping around the cheap-novelty district in a Ben Katchor comic strip.

"Here's a good one—hello, hel-looo?" The miniature bullhorn simultaneously muffled and amplified his voice like he was ordering me to drop my weapon and come out with my hands up. He turned elsewhere: "And these are my MegaMouths. I use two of them on 'That Lonesome Road.' " He raised them to his mouth and sang James Taylor's mournful lyrics in a high, sweet tenor: "Walk down that lonesome road all by yourself. . . ." As he sang into them, he slowly flared the toy megaphones apart to create an echo effect of a sort typically achieved only in a recording studio, and toggled their on/off switches in regular rhythm to create an illusion of footsteps, in keeping with Taylor's imagery of a rambling man afraid to look back.

The neatest of Bleckmann's toys, though, was his Indonesian Frog Buzzer—a tiny, resonating drum attached to a rosined stick by a black plastic string, played by turning the stick and twisting the string to create a whirling sound. As he'd done on Possibility's devilishly insinuating "Comes Love," Bleckmann lodged the drum in his teeth with the string dangling from his lips, turning the stick and thereby increasing the tension on the string while opening and closing his mouth—his embouchure, if you will, like a trumpeter blowing full blast through a buzz mute.

"Why am I doing this, at this precise moment?"
John Rogers
"Why am I doing this, at this precise moment?"
More than a gadgeteer
John Rogers
More than a gadgeteer

"These are toys, of course, but they're also instruments, and I take them very seriously," Bleckmann explained, reaching for another chocolate. Not as tall as he appears onstage—credit his perfect posture to his adolescence as a champion ice dancer in his native Germany—he has a quick, slightly crooked smile that gives him a strong resemblance to the actor Alan Cumming whom he unsuccessfully auditioned to replace in Cabaret on Broadway. "Anything I do with them I could probably do more easily using Pro Tools or some other computer program, but it wouldn't be the same, because I think it's very engaging for an audience to see how a sound is being created as it's being created."

Bleckmann is the most startlingly original male vocalist since Bobby McFerrin, and what figures to save him from rolling down the same slippery slope into feckless novelty is his more rigorous intellect. Discussing his decade-and-a-half tenure in interdisciplinary composer and choreographer Meredith Monk's ensemble (and revealing his own theories on sound projection), he could be quoting Stanislavsky. "Meredith comes from dance, and a lot of what's involved in working with her is an awareness of the body that I've carried over to my own music, and that I emphasize in the classes I'm teaching at the Manhattan School of Music," he explains. "She's also been important in showing me by example how to work from the inside out—in finding a motivation for what you're doing, whether it's singing a standard like 'I Hear a Rhapsody' or a complicated atonal melody with [guitarist] Ben Monder or just making some kind of crazy noise. 'Is this a sound being made by a human being, a musical instrument, the weather, a mountain? Am I somebody singing fully out or very intimately? Why am I doing this, at this precise moment?' "

Bleckmann hardly lacks for jazz bona fides, having traded ballads and bebop vocalese with his mentor, Sheila Jordan, and regularly improvising on equal footing with instruments in contexts ranging from duets with Monder to drummer John Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble. But Possibility hints at wider interests: For a jazz singer to take on James Taylor or Joni Mitchell as well as standards has become commonplace, but the program also includes Meredith Monk and the 1920s German dadaist Kurt Schwitters, along with Bleckmann's settings for texts by Emily Dickinson and Euripides, not to mention the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Fretting over who does and doesn't qualify as a jazz singer is a pastime as old as jazz itself, and more pointless than ever a century on. But whereas the debate once focused on the differences between jazz and pop, today a singer regarded as suspect is likely to be one also active in avant-garde classical composition or performance art. So how does Bleckmann fit into jazz? "The question should be, 'How does jazz fit into Theo?' " Hollenbeck replies. "Jazz isn't wide enough in scope to fit all of his talents and interests." Indeed, the singer has collaborated with such composers as Phil Kline, Eric Salzman, and David Lang, uncategorizable as anything but "avant-garde"; a current passion is Kate Bush, whose songs Bleckmann will "reimagine" at (le) poisson rouge on September 22.

For all that, the best introduction to his work might be either of two ambitious Winter & Winter concept albums with the Japanese pianist and arranger Fumio Yasuda, both of which present Bleckmann singing at least somewhat familiar material more or less conventionally—albeit in German for most of Berlin: Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile. Though recorded in 2006, that album of songs by Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, and other Weimar composers grew out of a concert Bleckmann presented at Joe's Pub to welcome the 2004 Republican National Convention to New York—"But no Republicans came, so I was preaching to the choir," he recalled. "Political music is usually very muscular and aggressive, as well it should be at times. But I wanted to show that music like this can be done without shouting, because usually it's done very theatrically and very, very BIG—and I wanted it to be more subtle and personal."

2004's Las Vegas Rhapsody: The Night They Invented Champagne is even subtler—and possibly Bleckmann's most autobiographical recording, even though only the reverie that opens and closes the album is his. Apolitical taken at face value, this collection of songs from Broadway and Hollywood musicals showed that all song is potentially transgressive: That Bleckmann is gay and unambiguously out is irrelevant to most of his work, but singing Rodgers & Hammerstein and the like, he flaunted a secret never fully acknowledged (if not exactly kept under tight wraps) by generations of gay men dependent on female surrogates to deliver their love songs for them. "It has occurred to me that 'We Kiss in a Shadow,' for example, could be heard as being about a gay love affair," he says. "But that's only a part of it. Those songs have larger personal meaning for me."

For starters, they represent childhood memories of watching American musicals on German TV. "I would lock everyone out of the TV room, close the curtains if it was during the day—it was usually Sunday afternoon—and absolutely forbid my parents and my older brother to come in or make any noise in the kitchen," he recalls. People who dislike movie musicals often complain that watching characters speak one moment and burst into song the next is disorienting; they don't get that those characters are understood to be singing inside—expressing their innermost feelings in the private language of song. Imagine how disorienting it could have been for Bleckmann, hearing dialogue dubbed into German give way to songs sung in their original English. "But it didn't matter to me at all, because the stories and settings were already so divorced from any reality I knew that I happily accepted anything."

A soprano soloist in church choirs as a preadolescent, he threw himself into ice dancing when his voice began to change. By the time he began singing again, in his late teens, he'd developed a passion for jazz: In 1987, he traveled 15 hours by train to Austria to audition for Jordan, who was beginning a three-month teaching residency at the Graz Conservatory. "I sang Charlie Parker's 'Confirmation' for her, using her lyrics, although I didn't know they were hers," he says. "For Sheila to like me was so important because all the vocal jazz I'd heard was very loud and aggressive, all about muscle and power, and I didn't feel I had a place in jazz if that's all there was. But the way Sheila sings, the way she teaches and the way she is, opened up so many possibilities for me, being so joyful and gentle and incredibly moving."

"I recognized Theo as someone with a need to sing, like me," Jordan says now. The doyenne of veteran female jazz singers and a tireless mother hen to younger ones, both male and female, Jordan told Bleckmann he belonged in New York, offering him the use of her Chelsea apartment while she was on the road or at her country home upstate, and using her connections to get him into the Manhattan School of Music and City University. "Theo is my baby, like a son or grandson," she says. "There was a point, a few years ago, where I thought, 'Oh, my! He's leaving jazz and moving into another thing altogether,' and I may have questioned that. But it was OK, because he was developing something completely original, and jazz will continue to be part of it. Theo's being true to himself, and that takes a lot of courage. Not everybody digs everything he does yet. But you know what? They will."

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