New York-based vocalist-composer Theo Bleckmann (who was born in Dortmund, Germany) and the brass quartet The Westerlies – trumpeters Riley Mulherkar and Chloe Rowlands and trombonists Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch, met in 2018 in a residence at Yellow Barn in Putney, Vermont, with a clear mission. They wanted to pair songs of resistance with songs of refuge, so fitting for our troubled times. This artistic endeavor seeks to highlight and reflect on music’s integral role in protest movements, as well as on the power of songs to provide internal solace amidst external turmoil, not only in today’s United States but transcending the current era.
The 15 songs-cycle of «This Land» was recorded two years later at Lethe Lounge, New York, in August 2020. The album features obvious choices songs that are associated for many years with protest movements like Woody Guthrie’s «Tear the Fascists Down» and «Ain’t Got No Home in this World Anymore», the spiritual work song «Wade in the Water», the Salvation Army’s popular hymn «In the Sweet By and By» that received a witty, parody version by Joe Hill (himself a Swedish-American immigrant and laborer who rose to prominence as an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World) as «In the Sweet By and By» (both are covered here), Joni Mitchell’s anti-war song «The Fiddle and the Drum» (taken from her album «Clouds», A &M, 1969) often used by resistance movements since the sixties, or Bertold Brechct’s «Bitten der Kinder» (The Requests of Children).
Less obvious choices are Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali’s poem «Land», exploring the complexities of life as an Indian-American immigrant, The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees’ TV commercial song «Look for the Union Label», composed by R&B Soul artist Malcolm Dodds, and a text of Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which authorized the Secretary of War to prescribe certain areas as military zones and cleared the way for the incarceration of 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry, Phil Kline’s closing song «Thoughts and Prayers», written especially for this project, and inspired by the words of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School survivor and activist Emma Gonzalez, plus original songs of Bleckmann – «Another Holiday», referring to the mass shooting at the gay Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and Clausen’s «Grandmar», written shortly after the passing of his grandmother.
Bleckmann’s heartfelt, operatic voice and the nuanced, chamber arrangements of this beautiful and touching song-cycle, as well as its reflexive, reserved spirit, charge this project with a timeless quality. This refined quality calls for meditation on the songs history, and obviously, its themes. The optimist, compassionate spirit of «This Land» also emphasizes the role and songs, music and art at all as a powerful source of inspiration and motivation, but also as means to blur the artificial distinctions between art music, folk music, jazz and contemporary music, and to bridge between alienated communities and beliefs and, hopefully, to bring relief for decades-old wounds. Albert Ayler was right when he said that music is the healing force of the universe.
Theo Bleckmann (v, live elec proc), Riley Mulherkar (tp), Chloe Rowlands (tp), Andy Clausen (tb), Willem de Koch (tb)