Dallas — Soundings, a series of modernist music presented in the downstairs theater at the Nasher Sculpture Center, turned to progressive jazz on Friday evening. It was not jazz you might hear in a club or on a jazz station — but Soundings isn’t known for being conventional.
It was a jazz combo with an unusual mix of instruments. Theo Bleckmann, a Grammy-nominated jazz singer, was assisted by some electronic manipulation. Where it got strange was using The Westerlies, a quartet made up of two trombones and two trumpets, to back him up. None of the more predictable participants — piano, bass, drums — were present.
The Westerlies are a New York-based brass quartet made up of Riley Mulherkar and Chloe Rowlands on trumpet, and Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombone. They last made a local appearance, sans singer, as part of the Cliburn Sessions at the Scat Jazz Lounge in March 2018.
The set we heard was developed in 2018 at Yellow Barn, a summer music retreat run by Seth Knopp, who is also the Artistic Director of Soundings. They named it “Songs of Refuge and Resistance.” Words were furnished in a program insert but the type was too small, not to mention printed on colored paper, to be helpful.
Many of the songs they riffed on were by familiar composers, but the music itself was only vaguely recognizable. The music consisted of an assortment of original compositions from Bleckmann and members of the quartet, as well as songs from Joni Mitchell, Woody Guthrie, Bertolt Brecht and Paul Dessau, Judee Sill, Phil Kline, and even a satire written by legendary union organizer Joe Hill.
Typically, jazz states a tune and then develops it by improvisation and passing it around the ensemble so everyone gets a chance to give it a run. Such was not the case here. The four brass players played from written parts, although there were many aleatoric passages that allowed some leeway. They mostly played together, like any classical brass quartet would do, with an occasional solo for one or the other.
The harmonies were basically tonal with atonal notes inserted here and there. The problem with this is that when there are only four parts, three with a triad and one adding a dissonant tone, it sounds like a wrong note.
In addition, the brass players frequently used alternative playing methods that made unusual sounds. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this in a larger ensemble or in a solo role, but it gave the quartet an odd overall sound when used and affected intonation. The fact that the brass players were amplified in such a relatively small space didn’t help.
Bleckmann has a lovely lyric voice that is perfectly placed and has a very wide range. He uses it sparingly, rarely rising above a mezzo forte. He also was amplified but his easy approach made a better effect than an amplified trumpet pointed into a microphone.
What was outstanding was his creative use of electronic enhancements. We are used to hearing this in rock and pop, but his use of it was novel and quite effective. A prerecorded soundtrack, combined with some recorded on the spot, created an ethereal and haunting sound. In one song, a single note at the end of a song was sustained way beyond the abilities of the human lung.
This performance was a new sound to me, somewhat reminiscent of the wild days of classical music experimentation in the 1970’s. The audience must have been more accustomed to the genre and gave them a rousing ovation.