Friday, 25 November 2011

The Claudia Quintet + 1 featuring Kurt Elling and Theo Bleckmann - What Is the Beautiful?

Beautiful, At Times

My interest in this album was roused by the appearance of Kurt Elling whose jazz singing and vocalese I rate highly. The concept was also of interest: setting the poetry/words of Kenneth Patchen to music, and as I said in the previous post, this prompted me to research Patchen's writing.

And I'll have to use the word now a third time: it is an 'interesting' listen. Opener Showtime is a spoken number by Elling, who has a potent narrative voice, and it begins with a tandem vocal/bass walk with the words. The musical element is essentially minimalist - there are no sweeping or erupting ensemble forays. Showtime becomes most engaging when the sensuous story of love and undressing concludes this beginning track, the bass and piano fading out in polite withdrawal from the scene.

Next track The Snow Is Deep On The Ground features Theo Bleckman - new to me but a regular with John Hollenbeck's The Claudia Quintet. It's a light, wispy vocal; not like the resonant tenor of Elling. In this track Bleckman's soft sound empathises with the words and snowy evocations of love,

The Snow Is Deep On The Ground

The snow is deep on the ground.
Always the light falls
Softly down on the hair of my belovèd.

This is a good world.
The war has failed.
God shall not forget us.
Who made the snow waits where love is.

Only a few go mad.
The sky moves in its whiteness
Like the withered hand of an old king.
God shall not forget us.
Who made the sky knows of our love.

The snow is beautiful on the ground.
And always the lights of heaven glow
Softly down on the hair of my belovèd.

Ted Reichman's accordion provides a gentle bed upon which to lay this lover's note and the equally gentle saxophone of Chris Speed. The third track Mates For Life is an instrumental where the vibes of Matt Moran reign - it's pleasant enough with John Hollenbeck's drumming climaxing towards its end.

Much of the music is minimal, staccato playing as with fourth track Job which is a comic narrative that Elling performs with sardonic gusto. Fifth track Do Me That Love poses part of the album's problem: how to make the words and music marry so that the former is clear and the latter engaging. Bleckman's spoken vocal here is again light and therefore lost at times, and the music, especially early on as it carries the story, is no more than that - a simple transportation. The repeated lines of the title do not get a rousing mirror that could have lifted this track from its slumber. Next Flock is more musically mad with its accordion and piano battle, dissonant and dangerous at times, a morse code of sound joined by clarinet and vibes in the liveliest number on the album.

The title track is the most powerful poetically, and Elling again recites with clarity and dramatic timing: Patchen's words passionate and humane and critically hopeful, blinded by its splendour. This is followed by eighth Beautiful You Are, another romantic reflection by Patchen. Overall the album is at its best when Elling performs - perhaps a simple reflection of my musical bias - but also when the poetry is to the fore. That is, after all, the celebration.

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