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Ambrose Akinmusire

The music on the wily trumpeter’s new the imagined savior is far easier to paint sounds familiar but acts unique. That makes for a seductive tension. You feel like you know where you are — graceful percussion rattles, soaring horn, bluesy mischief — but you’ve often got one foot planted in parts unknown. From art songs by Becca Stevens and Theo Bleckman to Ecclesiastes references regarding destiny, Akinmusire’s opus aims for the head while sating the body. Be prepare to be swept away this week.

March 13-16, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2014

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Ben Monder & Theo Bleckmann

Harmonically kaleidoscopic guitarist Ben Monder and vocal experimentalist Theo Bleckmann have been recording together since 1997, but it all falls into place on Monder’s beautiful and oceanic new Hydra, a prog rock-tinged jewel of an album that often suggests what Brian Wilson might have heard in his deepest sandbox reveries. They perform as a duo here.

Wed., Oct. 23, 7:30 & 9:30 p.m., 2013

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John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet + 1

The percussionst/composer’s sextet can seem like two or three different bands during the course of a set: They’re enamored of precision, and make their sharp turns and signature rhythmic shits with perfection, but they also crack open their tunes, giving interplay as much room as needed to detonate a series of explosions. On this two-nighter they integrate Theo Bleckmann’s dreamy vocals into the mix.

Fri., July 27, 8 p.m.; Sat., July 28, 8 p.m., 2012

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‘Gowanus Jazz Fest: Bleckman & Monder+Michael Formanek Quartet’

The second installment of this three-Saturday micro-fest features two ensembles fascinated with mood. Theo Bleckman has been singing with guitarist Ben Monder for almost 15 years. Their nuanced collaboration is rich in dynamics, waxing ethereal even when acting antsy. Bassist Formanek is riding a strong ECM disc that finds ways for post-bop to snuggle up to prog-prov while making dissonance sound sweet.

Sat., May 14, 8:30 p.m., 2011

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‘Undead Jazz Presents Orchestre National de Jazz & Daniel Yvinec+John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble’

Somewhere in the middle of the new Shut Up And Dance, it becomes clear that this French tentet can go anywhere and do anything. Industrial gurgles, prog-prov geometry, dreamy drones–they’re all essayed with the kind of precision that wrings emotion out of the performances. The Orchestre’s disc features Hollenbeck tunes, and the percussionist/composer’s own big band (tonight with vocalists Theo Bleckman and Kate McGarry) works on a similarly eloquent level. This sharp double bill is a great chance to climb into Hollenbeck’s head.

Mon., April 25, 6:30 p.m., 2011

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Jazz Vocalist Theo Bleckmann, Singing Inside Out

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.

“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.

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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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Harmolodic Convergence

Along with unimpeachable swing and blues sensibility to spare, Ornette Coleman possesses other jazz essentials today’s institutional guardians leave out, beginning with individuality, or what some might call personal eccentricities—in his case, and arguably all cases, they amount to the same thing. Jazz’s closest equivalent to the old, weird Dylan figured to win best album in the First Annual (?) Village Voice NY-and-Then-Some Jazz Critics’ Circle Poll. The surprise was the margin of victory for Sound Grammar, Coleman’s first new release in nine years and the first on his new vanity label of the same name, not to mention the eagerly anticipated recording debut of the dazzling two-bass quartet he’s been performing with in concert since 2003. Top choice on 10 of the poll’s 25 properly ranked ballots (including mine), Sound Grammar outpolled Andrew Hill’s Time Lines(Blue Note), a strong favorite almost any other year, by better than two to one, 189-89. (Though voters were requested to assign their top-10 points in descending order—10 points for their 1, one point for their 10—five entrants, undeterred by a wag of my finger, chose to distribute points equally.)

The Circle consists of critics currently living in New York and/or writing for New York–based publications, along with a few from elsewhere who figured to add spice. (A different rotation of outsiders might be called on next year.) Thirty respondents voted for 10 new releases and three reissues in descending order, plus one vocal record and one debut. You can see their ballots at [URL], along with the complete results. More than 200 CDs received votes in the four categories—whether this reflects a true embarrassment of riches or just a lack of consensus beyond Ornette is a question for a later occasion. One thing I learned for sure, in my position as this poll’s self-appointed poobah, is how many mailing lists I’m not on.


Charles Mingus
photo: Jazz Workshop Inc.

Placing somewhere on two-dozen of the 30 lists—compared to 13 for Hill and 11 for Sonny Rollins’s third-place Sonny, Please (Doxy)—Sound Grammar still would have won handily counting only those ballots that didn’t pick it

1. Even if you consider that Wilco guitarist Nels Cline’s New Monastery
(Cryptogramophone), a surprising fourth-place finisher, is subtitled “A View into the Music of Andrew Hill,” adding its votes to those for Time Lines would do no more than reduce Coleman’s margin of victory to just over 50. Ornette was the clear winner among radicals and conservatives, and in every age and racial demographic. If a certain New Yorker on loan to Kansas hadn’t pulled out at the last minute—after e-mailing me that he despised polls, but was looking for forward to voting for Ornette—I’d be telling you Grammar even carried the red states. This is what critical consensus looks like, folks, and for it to be forming behind a figure portrayed as a barbarian at the gate nearly 50 years ago isn’t ironic—it’s the way evolution is supposed to work, only it’s not supposed to take so long.

Time Lines, an even thornier and more densely lyrical effort than usual from another maverick absorbed into the mainstream and on a roll, is also

2. on my list. But after Hill is where the Circle and I went our separate ways, with only Rollins in common. Here are the rest of my choices, along with how they fared in the poll at large, ranked up to 40:

3. Theo Bleckmann and Fumio Yasuda, Las Vegas Rhapsody—The Night They Invented Champagne (Winter & Winter). The most transcendent vocal album in many a moon (for my money, anyway) reminds me of Björk’s Selmasongs. Bleckmann’s voice and Yasuda’s orchestrations have the same blissfully troubling emotional pull. (Unranked)

4. Odyssey the Band, Back in Time (Pi). The electric-hoedown bottom half of the straight harmolodic ticket, reuniting James Blood Ulmer with his compelling, short-lived trio of the early ’80s. (39)

5. Sonny, Please (Doxy). Riff tunes, ballads, a calypso, and an oddball pop selection—the sameformula as before, but a full-bodied sound and the Colossus at the top of his game make all the difference. (3)

6. Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra: MTO, Volume 1 (Sunnyside). Avant covers ranging from Cecil Scott and His Syncopated Serenaders to the Dead and Prince, with fastidious musicianship only adding to the fun. (13)

7. Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, Locked & Loaded (Half Note). Sax-section voicings as in-the-clouds as Ellington’s or Benny Carter’s, plus Pope, Michael Brecker, James Carter, and Joe Lovano’s post-Coltrane speaking-in-tongues —either way gets you to heaven, but both earn you wings. (16)

8. Andy Biskin, Early American—The Melodies of Stephen Foster (Strudelmedia). Foster deconstructed in the new old-fashioned way, but with his defining doo-dah blessedly intact. (Unranked)

9. Houston Person with Bill Charlap, You Taught My Heart to Sing (HighNote). Melodious duets representing a young pianist’s coming of age and a veteran blue-collar tenorist’s apotheosis. (25)

10. Steve Swallow and Robert Creeley, So There (Xtrawatt/ECM). The greatest love poet of the second half of the 20th century (when love got really difficult) lived long enough into the 21st to lay down tracks for what proved to be good friend Swallow’s moving, high-spirited eulogy. (Unranked)

My rule limiting the field to CDs released between last Thanksgiving and this year’s prohibited me from honoring Anthony Brown’s sagely multicultural Rhapsodies (Water Baby), an ’05 release that found its way to me only this spring. My other Honorable Mentions (because convening the Circle and tabulating the votes should bring some privilege): Henry Allen & Joe Cohn’s Hey, Look Me Over (Arbors Jazz); Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City
(Pi); Satoko Fujji’s Undulation (PJL); Billy Hart’s Quartet (HighNote); Lee Konitz-Ohad Talmor String Project’s Invention (OmniTone); John McNeil’s East Coast Cool (OmniTone); Peter Madsen’s Prevue of Tomorrow (Playscape); The Source (ECM); and David S. Ware’s Balladware (Thirsty Ear). And I’m pulling your coattails, not your leg, when I tell you Bruce Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome
(Columbia) is the best Dixieland album since the 1950s and might have gotten my vote for best vocal if not for Bleckmann.

Back to the poll results. Rewarding genuine rarity over lavish repackaging, the Circle voted Charles Mingus’s unruly but worth-it Live at UCLA (CME/Sunnyside) the year’s best reissue. It was my choice as well, followed by Seven Men With Neckties and Surrealistic Swing, Cuneiform’s two-double-disc Microscopic Septet retrospective (the Circle ranked it 10), and the overall unranked Jimmy Raney With Bob Brookmeyer (Verve), ’50s postbop lyricism personified.

One model for the poll was the one conducted by Jazz from 1964 to 1971, by which point the magazine had morphed into Jazz & Pop and the poll into the prototype for Pazz & Jop. J&P used to name winners for best piano album (meaning solo or trio sans horns) and best big-big or large-ensemble recording (meaning, oh, let’s say eight or more instruments) extrapolated from the general results. Following that tradition, this year’s respective winners are Keith Jarrett’s The Carnegie Hall Concert (ECM, 7 overall) and Joe Lovano’s Streams of Expression (Blue Note, 10).

Given the indifference, if not contempt, many critics feel toward singers, they needed their own category. (“Hate jazz vocals—always have,” one critic explained, leaving the line blank.) Unheralded veteran Nancy King’s Live at Jazz Standard (Maxjazz) won0 the nod 4-3-3 over perennial critics’ favorite Cassandra Wilson’s Thunderbird (Blue Note) and newcomer Roberta Gambarini’s Easy to Live (Groovin’ High), with a few critics taking advantage of the option I gave them to substitute a CD featuring spoken word.

Looking at the ages of the musicians in the poll’s Top 10—five of them over 70, with Cline the youngest at 50—you can see why I initiated a debut category designed to favor performers in their twenties and thirties. The lukewarm response to this category raises the question of whether the fetish for tradition (as opposed to innovation) that took hold in the ’80s has had the long-term effect of chasing younger players, as well as younger audiences, away from jazz, despite that decade’s parade of young faces following Wynton Marsalis. The good news is that drummer Francisco Mela’s Melao (Viya) garnered six votes, an impressive total when compared with the two votes apiece for four other CDs, including trombonist Curtis Hasselbring’s The New Mellow Edwards (Skirl), my pick for its inspired mix of rambunctiousness and whimsy. The victory by a Cuban-born musician suggests a deep new talent pool as well as an enduring musician. Which perhaps this poll will become.

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Weimar Vegas

Hearing Theo Bleckmann sing “We Kiss in a Shadow” from another room, I half thought he was Nico. It was the trace of German in his fricatives and long vowels (“Our meetings are few/And over too soon”), but also the androgyny—in Bleckmann’s case, a postmodern construct, a deliberate act of provocation, as opposed to Nico’s all-fucked-out asexuality. I love Las Vegas Rhapsody: The Night They Invented Champagne, Bleckmann and pianist-arranger Fumio Yasuda’s concept album of show tunes that stray from the he-man bebopper’s approved jamming list (try “Out of My Dreams,” from Oklahoma). But no one I’ve led to it has been quite as taken as I am—though one friend admits he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about it, which might be just the reaction I was looking for. Too bad “haunting” has become depleted through overuse. Think Rufus Wainwright plus intonation and minus narcissism. Bleckmann, a competitive figure skater before becoming a Sheila Jordan protégé, is a member of Meredith Monk’s ensemble and the wordless voice in drummer John Hollenbeck’s orchestra. Although he scats convincingly here and there on Las Vegas Rhapsody, his real gift turns out to be for coaxing fresh meaning out of what one would have assumed were hopelessly dated lyrics—”We Kiss in a Shadow” could be about love in the closet. Multiplying himself by four on the catchy “Teacher’s Pet” (the theme from a 1958 Clark Gable movie and the song Parker Posey auditioned with in Waiting for Guffman), he shoots past the Hi-Lo’s to conjure up the Weimar Republic and the Comedian Harmonists. Yasuda demonstrates an unerring sense of when a lonesome glockenspiel or walking bass will do, and when to let the full Kammerorchester Basel rain down like Dvorak’s Ninth (under Bleckmann’s falsetto on the climax of “My Favorite Things,” whose orientalism has nothing to do with Coltrane’s modes). This is the future of cabaret, if cabaret knows what’s good for it.

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The Moving Pencil Writes

A pencil wandering across a page is an irresistible analogy for a human life: leaving its irrevocable, wavering mark as it goes, expending itself in an inherently finite process. At the beginning of Mercy, by Meredith Monk and Ann Hamilton, recently performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Hamilton held a tiny camera on the point of a charcoal pencil as it roamed across the paper. Only the paper itself had no edge—it was a long, long sheet pulled from offstage, so that actually the paper moved, not the pencil. What we saw onscreen was that pencil point moving endlessly across a vast white expanse. Just watching it made you feel contextualized, lonely, aware of where you were in the thin line of your life on the vast field of humanity, how much charcoal has been used, how much is left. And not only seeing, but hearing, for the pencil was amplified.

That’s the kind of creativity I’ve come to expect from Meredith Monk every time: simple but powerful, and powerful precisely because it is so simple. This is what the mid-century mavens of modernism forgot: that when music became complicated it relinquished its power, because it had become extremely specific,and no longer possessed generalized archetypes to speak to the human condition. And Monk’s music is deeply archetypal—partly, but not solely, because it begins with the human voice.

The endless pencil line was the recurring frame for a series of wordless vignettes that looked at human situations, often through that tiny camera, sometimes concealed in a character’s mouth, and always with compassion. Monk’s archetype has often been the lullaby, but in Mercy it seemed—and seems, since I’m listening to the new ECM CD as I write this—to be the plaint, the lamentation, the song of mourning and by extension of comfort. Minor keys predominated, with what were for Monk unusually inconclusive harmonies. People dressed in vaguely old-fashioned European attire threaded past a nurse who examined each and eventually said, “Come in.” Words were rare, but one word the singers sang to each other, muting it as though afraid of being too clearly understood, was help.

Besides, a lullaby has a built-in end point—the baby falls asleep. A plaint is an open-ended, trailing-away affair, and instead of the verse structure of the lullaby, Mercy was propelled by ostinatos, repeated accompaniment figures on piano and synthesizer by Allison Sniffin and on percussion by John Hollenbeck. Meticulously differentiated, every one was a different beat-length: five beats for this song, eight for that one, seven or 10 for another. They made the music go around and around in a circle, an endless but repetitive human parade, just like the parade of human misery in which Monk’s enlarged cast of dancers filed across the stage—just like that endless pencil line.

For all its impressive visual theater—including huge bubbles made by running soap down pairs of wires suspended from the ceiling—Mercy was perhaps Monk’s most musically ambitious piece since her opera Atlas, full of solid chunks of ensemble composition. Her repertoire of sounds was expanded—there were odd, muffled, nonharmonious tones from the synthesizer and considerable noise from Hollenbeck, who was allowed room for chaotic percussion improvisation. Tune in to the CD at certain moments, and Monk wouldn’t come to mind. Rhythmic repetitions played off of each other in layers, cycling in different tempos at once. And Monk’s fellow singers—Alexandra Montano, Ching Gonzalez, Lanny Harrison, Ellen Fisher, and Theo Bleckmann, who particularly deserves notice for his versatile characterizations—were also given free rein to develop their own performing styles for the piece, though this isn’t as evident on the recording as it was live.

The focus of that camera on people’s hands while they were writing, on their mouths while they were singing, on the doctor’s (Bleckmann’s) face as he examined Monk, kept an enlarged focus on the mundane, painted by the music with a noble poignancy. All this with no plot, no dialogue, no obvious throughline. It’s evidence of the level that Monk and Hamilton are working on that until I started writing this column I hadn’t figured out why the piece was called Mercy. And now it’s so obvious.



Related Article:

Deborah Jowitt’s dance review of Meredith Monk’s Mercy