The Jazz Singer Who Covered Kate Bush: A Conversation About Theo Bleckmann : A Blog SupremeThe German-born vocalist Theo Bleckmann has made his name in the U.S. traversing the fields of jazz, cabaret and contemporary classical music. On his new album, one idiosyncratic, border-crossing singer reinterprets another.
John Labbé/Courtesy of the artist
John Labbé/Courtesy of the artist
John Labbé/Courtesy of the artist
The singular vocalist Theo Bleckmann released a new disc today dedicated to the songs of English singer-songwriter Kate Bush. In other words, it's an album where one inimitable singer with a small but dedicated fan base reinterprets another.
There's not much in the way of ding-ding-a-ling on Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush. But there is, perhaps, a jazz aesthetic: It grooves, and makes room for interactive improvisation from a talented band. Have a listen to the first track, "Running Up That Hill" (the full album is on Spotify too):
I sensed a number of sympathies between Bleckmann and Bush, starting with their mutual taste for gorgeous idiosyncrasy. But like many Americans, I wasn't too familiar with the source material. So I wrote to a big Kate Bush fan who happens to be my colleague: the esteemed pop critic Ann Powers, of NPR Music's The Record. Here's the discussion we had, in four emails:
The last time you were up here at our offices, I distinctly remember waving an advance CD I got from a jazz publicist in your face. It's an album of Kate Bush covers, and I know you love her music. Happily, you already had it, so now that it's out: What do you think?
Personally, I quite like it. I think I can begin to explain what I dig about this, and maybe how that works. I'm hoping you can fill in some of the why. There's a certain mysterious tension behind much of the energy on this record — about the subject matter, and the gender politics, and really just the way it's executed. Perhaps you can provide that deep catalog context?
The album, for those of you playing along at home, is called Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush. And the artist behind it is a German singer based in New York named Theo Bleckmann. I'd call him a jazz singer, because he performs a lot with improvising musicians, and one of his primary mentors is the NEA Jazz Master and vocalist Sheila Jordan. Of course, what he does is far bigger than that: He's done a lot with cabaret and showtunes, and works with a wide variety of contemporary "classical" composers and ensembles. He often sets poems to his own music too. (See also: the Fresh Air interview.) And as I yapped about on Morning Edition once, he even recorded a solo project, just voice and processing and a box of noisemakers and a Swiss Alpine monastery.
The Swiss Alps thing is an interesting image. The first thing you notice about Theo Bleckmann's voice is how ... pristine it is. The dude has squeaky-clean diction and "pure" delivery with no reverb, almost more perfect than native speakers of American English. Of course, there are all sorts of atmospheric touches behind him — whistling, and multitracked voice, and wordless vocal passages, and dirty, echo-y guitar, and colorful percussion and various white noise elements. (I get the impression Bleckmann and Bush are both known as "arty" singers, no?) The juxtaposition of scraggly and clean-shaven may take a little getting used to, but I dig it.
For me, another big part of this record is how creatively it's arranged. The way "Running Up That Hill" plays out, moving from aforementioned guitar atmospherics to balladic heft to that pounding on toms bit toward the end where you find yourself nodding, like "Yeah, run up that hill!" — I love it when a song builds like that. I like that there's room for virtuosic improvisation, but it's got a place and function in service to the tight craft of the arrangement. As a jazz guy, I find myself listening a lot to the beats John Hollenbeck comes up with on drums — he and Bleckmann work a lot together, including a Joni Mitchell-inspired band. In fact, lots of jazz-trained musicians are here — Henry Hey on keys, Skuli Sverrisson on bass — and it sounds like it would kill live. Hey, look at that, there's a Theo Bleckmann does Kate Bush concert on our website.
(It's more than a bit clever too — notice how there's a violinist on the album [Caleb Burhans] who plays grinding metal guitar on "Violin." He does play violin on "Saxophone Song," which starts with a conventional uptempo bebop feel, and contains no saxophone.)
I am curious about ... well, all the words! I listen to an awful lot of instrumental music, and I'm not usually a lyrics-first sort of guy in my pop tastes — it took me a long time to appreciate Bob Dylan, for instance. But I found myself in the rare position of really being interested in parsing out the meanings here. "The Man with the Child in His Eyes," for instance, appears to be a really affecting love song. (I'm reminded of what the rapper Big Boi said about Kate Bush's latest album: "It's almost like a scene from her diary — she seems to be in love like a motherf—. Really, really, really in love.") And as it stands, Theo Bleckmann is gay — he's cool singing "nobody knows about my man" and calling upon his emotional well to really mean it.
I guess what I'm saying is that there's a certain emotional abstraction inherent to a lot of jazz — a field where standards are named things like "Dolphin Dance," and "Windows," and "Footprints" — which abuts the highly literate, double-entendre, evocative lyrics of Kate Bush. And her tunes aren't just mere love songs either — I mean, the singer in "And Dream of Sheep" and "Hello Earth" may well be hallucinating while drowning in the ocean. Do you think this tension works as well as I do?
And I'm also curious as to what you think a male voice does to these tunes. I mean, I'm a child of the '90s, so I missed out on Kate Bush when she was blowing up. But I get the impression that she exudes a very strong femininity, and that a lot of her fans like that about her. How do you hear Bleckmann refracting that?
Ok, over to you. As Bush sings, "let's exchange the experience."
I'm so happy you waved that disc in my face. As if this beautifully careful, creative, empathetic reinterpretation of the great Kate's music weren't enough, now I have access to the ears of a jazz expert to help me fully grasp the frame of Bleckmann's project.
You've put myriad topics on the table for discussion: musical artiness; vocal tone and diction (Bush's is beautiful, but the opposite of "pristine" — she growls, she's breathy, the chews up her syllables when the dramatic moment demands); the place of lyrics in spinning these pop fairy tales.
I'll start with what's most obvious: the gender switch. As an out gay man known for rather grand gestural experiments (like taking on the songs of Charles Ives), Bleckmann might have been expected to do some diva drag. Artists like John Kelly, who absorbed Joni Mitchell's aura so thoroughly that she herself became his biggest fan, have shown how a male voice joining with a female sensibility can tell us new things about what "masculine" and "feminine" mean.
That's not what Bleckmann does here, though. Instead of playing up the aspects of Bush's persona that scream out fantasy warrior goddess — her dazzlingly high voice, the emotionalism in her singing, the synth-heavy, rhythmic arrangements partially designed to complement dance moves evocative of Martha Graham — Bleckmann picks up these texts as if he'd found them with the author line erased. His fealty is to the content; they are stories worth retelling, and he and his collaborators honor them with air and light.
What this means is no piercing falsetto (Bleckmann's voice has a woodwind quality instead, vibratoless but warm) and no bug-eyed melodrama. As a fan who fell in love with Bush in the '80s, when she was imitating bats and affecting a faux-Russian accent to play a "Babooshka," I treasure her theatrics. They're what freed her from the almost passive, confessional vulnerability expected of female singer-songwriters and made her as punk as Siouxsie and the Banshees.
But the sometimes frenzied energy that went into songs like "Violin" and "Cloudbusting" only works if you're working through the problem Bush faced — the problem of being a woman in pop, a soprano at that, who has more to say than just, "I love you" — from the inside out. Bleckmann's first important choice was to not approach Bush's music as primarily woman's work. Even the song with that phrase as a title ("This Woman's Work"), which became a hit for Maxwell when he sang it in a lush falsetto: Bleckmann sets it partly in his lovely lower range, reminding us that Bush's own androgyny is grounded in the principle that "human" is the category that matters.
Bush is like Bjork that way, another artist who's feminine on the surface but shape-shifting while inhabiting her art. And yes, arty to the max! Hello Earth focuses on Bush's early and middle periods; he stays away from the more autobiographical Aerial and the mature, often elegiac 50 Words for Snow. The tension you've identified is rooted in the incongruous pairing of Bush's wild yarn-spinning in songs tackling reincarnation ("All the Love"), seduction by a ghost ("The Man With the Child In His Eyes," which intrigued you), and, oh hell, I've never been able to figure out what "Suspended in Gaffa" is about, and the calm, naturalistic mood of these versions.
At the same time, Bleckmann and his players clearly know Bush's work inside out. The arrangements often connect strongly to the originals (though I'm glad he didn't enlist anyone to try to top Alan Skidmore's killer run on "The Saxophone Song"!), varying the tempo but using elements like strings and percussion in similar ways. A little-known fact about Bush is that she pioneered the use of synthesizers within pop songs; that's one reason, I think, why hip-hop artists like Big Boi love her. Mulit-instrumentalist Henry Hey rocks a Minimoog and a prepared harpsichord on Hello Earth! but the jazz feel of these recordings comes from the acoustic instruments the band uses, and the clean production, which makes a listener feel like she's in a room listening to a band, instead of inside the maelstrom of Bush's brain and soul.
By opening up the sound of Bush's music, Bleckmann has given fans like me a gift: We can hear these songs anew, in versions that neither mimic Bush nor do away with her glorious spirit, instead reflecting upon and clarifying the songs' essence. That's what I hear, as someone who's lived with Bush's music for my entire adult life. My question for you is: How does this fit within the contemporary jazz scene?
I'm curious, specifically, whether this album can be partnered with Robert Glasper's much-acclaimed latest, and maybe Esperanza Spalding's, as part of a new movement to make jazz songful and story-rich, to counter the abstraction you mention. What's the journey from "Dolphin Dance" to "Love and Anger" — or to Glasper's Black Radio? Not that Kate Bush doesn't like dolphins! Here she is talking about swimming with them.
John Labbé /Courtesy of the artist
John Labbé /Courtesy of the artist
I won't answer to "jazz expert," but I have certainly been monitoring the dialogue around Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding. I do think they're part of a new energy rising from the community of jazz-trained musicians, and while I don't think Theo Bleckmann works with Rob and Espe much (if at all), there's a similar perspective at play.
I'll back up for a second. This spring's releases from pianist Robert Glasper (Black Radio) and bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding (Radio Music Society) will be the most high-profile albums to have come from jazz musicians in a long time. A conventional term for them would be "crossover" records, and indeed, the word "radio" in both of their titles indicates some aspiration and/or commentary about making pop-radio-friendly music in 2012.
For that reason, I think you'll find respectable arguments disowning both the Radio albums and Hello Earth! as not jazz. (If you haven't noticed, the jazz community is notoriously obsessed with its boundaries.) Personally, I don't have any firm position in this debate, but it's the debate itself, not the verdict, that is telling. As a starting point, there's certainly little here that sounds like swing-as-we-know-it — but perhaps it has a feel and pacing to it native to jazz?
Where I think Bleckmann comes in is that he joins Glasper and Spalding in that they could live with "jazz" disowning them — on their latest records anyway. I think all three grew up in a world where playing jazz is not a mainstream choice to make as a musician, and have come to love the skilled, real-time, collectively improvisatory sort of playing their training affords them. I also think that all three view pop music of the last 50-odd years as a rich (even primary) source of inspiration. To them, jazz is much more a lens or approach than a code of commandments; if what they're feeling is wrong, I don't think they want to be right.
Now, I also think there's a bit of a cultural argument being made in the Radio albums, especially Glasper's, about connecting with the greater continuum of African-American music. It hasn't escaped me that Hello Earth! is an album of white Europeans/European-Americans covering a British songwriter. But since Kate Bush songs obviously have some guts and soul and distinct personality, and because the interpretations are all done with creativity and feeling, I think one can identify the blues tradition in there somewhere too. Possibly related: It strikes me that Robert Glasper has probably played "This Woman's Work" as a part of Maxwell's touring band, and is there anyone more naturally suited to do the whole song-and-dance-with-the-double-bass routine of "Babooshka" than Esperanza Spalding?
So it's not just the "song-ness" here which unites Bleckmann to one (of many, many, many) trend(s) in modern jazz. In fact, I think I misspoke a bit in my first communique about abstraction — there are plenty of jazz musicians who have been explicit with their storytelling. I think of Billie Holiday on "Strange Fruit," or Charles Mingus on "Fables of Faubus" (the original version, with the politically charged verse) or Abbey Lincoln on just about anything. I think of Kate Bush's "Army Dreamers" in this line of forward social commentary, speaking on how lack of privilege tragically limits your options in life. Today, there are still a number of prominent jazz singer-songwriters working with provocative ideas, like René Marie or Patricia Barber or Fay Victor.
That said, I just left you with a list of mostly singers, who have the benefit of words at their disposal. Instrumentalists have to convey emotion with only notes and tones, and in that sense, jazz is by nature an abstract art. (If these songs hadn't been written by Kate Bush, it would be a lot more difficult to write about!) I think Theo Bleckmann is thinking a bit like a jazz instrumentalist here, trying very hard to match the literary intent with a very personal sonic reconfiguration. I do enjoy it when you can see creativity play out like that.
Do you see Kate Bush as working with notions of abstract art like that? If not, who else out there marries this sonic imperative with compelling lyrics, do you think? (Does it surprise you that Bjork and Radiohead are incredibly popular among jazz musicians?) And where can a new Kate Bush fan go next after the songs found here?
P.S. If you have a minute, check out Theo Bleckmann doing some other unexpected covers (Kraftwerk, "Man Of Constant Sorrow," Jimmy Webb) with John Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble last summer at the Newport Jazz Festival. And here's another song from Hello Earth!:
Bleckmann is thinking like an instrumentalist — or maybe more like an instrument. This might be where he has one up on Bush. She imagines herself in thrall to saxophones and violins, but the force of her personality is so strong that she never fully blends into the mix of her musical arrangements. She's always out front, responsive to her collaborators, but in command, the dominant note in a flavorful brew.
One thing I find exciting about Hello Earth! is that, in these spacious and well-proportioned arrangements, the songs add up to new wholes. John Hollenbeck's percussion and Henry Hey's piano work, in particular, form dialogues with Bleckmann's vocal lines to change the shape of Bush's narratives. There are times — on "Running Up That Hill," for example — when Bleckmann honors the harmonic structure of a line in ways that play down its emotional impact. Where Bush belts or whispers, Beckmann stays on the middle path. He sacrifices his own ego in service to the larger musical message.
Is that a jazz move? It's not a pop one, though Bush has never really been pop, either — she's too eccentric, too committed to her own priorities to worry about fitting in with the trends of the moment. That may be another thing that separates Hello Earth! from the work of Spalding and Glasper. Both Radio albums pose challenges not just to jazz, but to mainstream music: If their catchiest cuts end up on commercial radio, or even at the top of many iTunes playlists, the great middle gains some sophistication and organic artistry.
I don't think there's any chance that Hello Earth! will find a similar broad audience. I'll push it on everyone I think will appreciate it; but, gorgeous as it is, this album isn't catchy. It's a head-and-heart exercise that rewards careful listening. And you're right — it only very occasionally swings. If we must categorize Hello Earth!, perhaps we should call it "new music" (a Google search reminded me that Bleckmann sang on composer Phil Kline's Zippo Songs, one of my favorite recent compositions in that category). Or "art song" (Rufus Wainwright and Antony Hegarty are definitely kindred spirits). Or my favorite category: "other."
Kate Bush fans certainly think of her as "other" — as someone who stands outside of pop's usual parameters, too aggressive for folk, too ethereal for rock, too smart for the Top 40, too timeless for New Wave. Beyond the adoration of her fans, there is another kind of otherness to Bush. If Glasper and Spalding reach for the whole sweep of African-American music, Bush throws her arms around something arguably even bigger: the archetypal big picture, from the ancient world to the present future, from aboriginal myth (a theme of my favorite Kate album, The Dreaming) to cyber-fantasy (she went there on her recent single "Deeper Understanding").
In its coolness, Hello Earth! distills something digestible from Bush's overflowing palette. That makes it a good introduction to her work. Where to go next? I'd try 1985's The Hounds of Love, which includes several of the tracks Bleckmann covers, and includes several nearly conventional love songs and a very Bushian song cycle, based on a Tennyson poem. The double album Aerial, from 2005, is also a nice bet for total immersion. After that, go where you like: back to the mad beginning, or meet Bush in the calmer place where she now lives, represented by last year's excellent 50 Words for Snow.
You ask about other artists. It's tough for me to compare anyone to Kate Bush; such is the intensity of my loyalty. However, if you go beyond the cultish worship of lost '60s innovator Nick Drake to really listen to the music, I think you'll find a musicality that will surprise you. I'd say the same about lost '90s heartthrob Jeff Buckley. And Kate's fan Maxwell is doing interesting things in the realm of R&B.
As for Kate's artistic daughters, she's been credited with many. I'm intimately aware of Tori Amos' career, having written a book with her, and though the vocal similarities are undeniable, I think she's really very different. (For one thing, though she married an Englishman, Tori is at heart an all-American rocker.) Sarah McLachlan? Enjoy her, but she doesn't strive for Bush's heights. Someone younger, like Laura Marling? Not there yet. One female voice has proven as distinctive, though, and I'd love to hear a jazz take on it. Anybody tackle the intricate meanderings of Joanna Newsom yet?
Thanks so much for the conversation, Patrick. Let's do it again the next time something weird and wonderful comes along!