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Theo Bleckmann & the Westerlies: This Land Is Their Land

The dynamic vocalist and the bold brass ensemble make beautiful (protest) music together

Theo Bleckmann and the Westerlies
Left to right: Willem de Koch, Chloe Rowlands, Theo Bleckmann, Riley Mulherkar, and Andy Clausen (photo: John Labbé)

Late in the afternoon on an unusually warm January day, the House of Representatives—stirred to fast action by the attack on the United States Capitol the week prior—voted to impeach then-President Donald J. Trump for the second time in his term. Mere days before his four-year tenure was ending, with Joe Biden soon to ascend to the presidency, Trump was cited for incitement and insurrection. 

“The more impeachment, the better,” Theo Bleckmann said that same day, stifling something between a laugh and a sigh of disgust. Born in Dortmund, Germany 54 years ago, the Impressionist nu-jazz vocalist, interpreter, and composer has lived in America since 1989, and knows U.S. politics and policy as confidently as he does the genre jumbles of his own music.

“Words count,” he added with a huff. “It is a message that needs to be sent, this impeachment. You can’t hold public office and incite violence. There are consequences. A week left? So what?”

As Bleckmann revved himself up, trumpeter Chloe Rowlands hummed in approval. She and her bandmates in the Seattle-born, NYC-based brass quartet the Westerlies have collaborated, most democratically, with Bleckmann on a quiet but storming new protest album, This Land.

“Crazy it took this long,” Bleckmann continued. “It is good to know that an attempted insurrection is what it took to get him out. I mean, what the fuck? What, then, can we do beyond looking at ourselves? That was the point of this record: What can we do with the means that we have? Maybe we’ll preach to the choir, and maybe it’s not enough. But maybe it is. Rather than just play a jazz standard that expresses love, maybe the subject matter needs to change for a moment. To something stronger. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with preaching to the choir. The choir needs support too, strength to continue.”

“So,” I interjected, pulling a title from one of This Land’s more incendiary tracks, “it’s fair to say that you covering Woody Guthrie’s ‘Tear the Fascists Down’ has never seemed more relevant than it does today.”

The three of us laughed; that is, despite the fact that neither Trump’s actions nor those of the House—nor, indeed, those of the five-person team that made This Land—are all that funny. 

Then again, if you’re not laughing, you’re crying.

Before we get to This Land—which sets Bleckmann’s rubber-band vocals against the mixed-grain experimentalism of Rowland, fellow trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, and trombonists Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch over gentle protest music penned by Joni Mitchell, Bertolt Brecht, Phil Kline, and members of the team—it’s crucial to know how they got to this state-of-the-union address together.

Mentored by Sheila Jordan; renowned for scintillatingly offbeat arrangements of compositions by Charles Ives, Kurt Weill, and Kate Bush (the Ives tunes got him a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Crossover Album in 2009); and frequently teamed with an eclectic odd lot of jazzbos including John Hollenbeck, Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Dave Douglas, and Meredith Monk, Bleckmann made his true start as a champion skater before coming into his own as an elastic phraser, arranger, writer, and curator.

“I was an ice dancer many, many decades ago,” Bleckmann said, amused that I remembered. “For me, the idea of its lines, and of floating—that curved aesthetic—has found its way into a sound that uses soft edges. Everything blends and melts together with me. It’s a never-ending arc, a never-ending propulsion, which has found its way into my music.”

Rowlands hasn’t done much ice dancing. But the trumpeter and flugelhornist has spent time in wedding cover ensembles, led the brass section of the orchestra for LoftOpera productions, and played in indie-rock bands such as Fleet Foxes and Cape Francis. She joined the Westerlies in 2016, just as the rest of the group were first making Bleckmann’s acquaintance. At that point, the quartet had made two acclaimed albums in a third-stream vein with original trumpeter Zubin Hensler; they have since made one more, 2020’s Wherein Lies the Good, along with various other collaborative efforts.

“Be it Brecht or an opera session, or playing with pedals and effects, or background parts in an indie band with more ethereal textural elements, or full-fledged improvisation and soloing—all the styles I’ve pursued all of my life have found my way into everything I do now,” Rowlands said. “That’s how the Westerlies operate to begin with. With us there is an amalgamation of a string quartet’s accuracy and the creative exploration of a free-jazz outfit.”

Bleckmann doesn’t dare to try to find a reason or rhyme to his aesthetic. “If I knew or could put it into words, I think I’d be a better writer, but there is a stripped-down aesthetic that I’m very interested in, where I try not to take over or use any jazz mannerisms or bring them into the material,” he said. “I try to look at things as sober and emotionally pure, without taking any style-isms from any other arena. It comes back to being honest and direct.” That phrase “emotionally pure” resonates throughout This Land, a jazz protest album that doesn’t sound like one.

“When we first got together, I sort of wanted us to react to the political situation,” Bleckmann recalled. “This was 2016 and Trump had just gotten elected.” The five musicians were taking part in a residency at Yellow Barn in Putney, Vermont, a home to and think-tank for all levels of chamber-music experimentation. 

“We were actually working on a different collaboration with other singers, and I remember going to an ice cream shop with the rest of the Westerlies after we first got together,” Bleckmann continued. “We talked about all that was going on politically and thought out loud about doing something musical that expressed something political without being harsh or loud or preachy … Can we be sensitive to a cause without shouting? Can we make effective protest music that didn’t scream?”

Yes, yes, a resounding yes, as their trembling takes on Mitchell’s “The Fiddle and the Drum,” Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore,” and trumpeter Mulherkar’s “Looking Out” demonstrate.

Rowlands was quick to say how the Westerlies looked up to Bleckmann before their collaboration and admired his desire for equality among all working partners once the process began. “I think that both of our aesthetics line up thematically,” she said. “In working with him now for several years, I can honestly say that ours is a perfect match: how we function, as well as how we sound.”

For the sake of frankness, and given that This Land is a direct response to the Trump years, it’s important to note at this point that Bleckmann is a gay man, long married to a Black man, and that Rowlands proudly came out as trans around the same time that she joined the Westerlies.

JT: I wouldn’t have asked this question 10 years ago. Maybe not even five years ago. We just happen to have been in a less tolerant time for the last four years. Theo and Chloe, how have you both crafted and maintained a life in what we’ll loosely call jazz, which tends to define itself as cisgender, heterosexual male-dominated, and often misogynistic?

BLECKMANN: I’d like to speak about this, first, in reference to knowing Chloe before her transition, during her transition, and after her transition. I’ll tell you, it is the same person—no difference, save for the fact that Chloe is happier now. Being gay or trans has little to do with what I’m singing about. I’m hoping that what I’m singing about is always universal, and that love rules. I don’t believe that who I am has ever made a difference or been an issue for anyone with whom I have worked. I’ve always been comfortable with who I am. Besides, if anyone didn’t want to work with me because of who I am, fine, I don’t want to work with them. Good riddance. Identity goes so much deeper than that… I’ve seen it in Chloe, before, during, and after her transition. It’s magical. She’s the same soul.

ROWLANDS: For sure, being trans has never been something I put above my music. It’s just another aspect of who I am. I came out and joined The Westerlies simultaneously. I became part of something. Maybe if I had stayed a freelance player, I would have had to defend myself more, I don’t know. It was really nice, joining an established group immediately following the transition. It never had to be a thing. I never made any music that commented on that specifically. That said, the biggest thing about my trans identity is that there is no one else that I can think of in the jazz world—especially in NYC—who is an out trans person. The fact that I exist and succeed in what I am doing will, I hope, inspire a whole new generation of trans people who maybe never felt comfortable coming out. Perhaps seeing me, they will feel more confident.

Theo, you moved to America from Germany in the ’80s. Having lived elsewhere in the world and seeing the arc of our politics, our social and cultural changes, from that perspective—how does that play a part in your work?

BLECKMANN: In my 31 years in America, I have discovered how the ugly underbelly of America is only now becoming more visible than before. Being married to a Black man made things even more clear to me. That stuff [racism] is everywhere. And America is a young country. There are so many things pushed under the rug here and never dealt with that are only coming up now, and coming up with a vengeance. We must contend with that. And it has to come out. We can’t just wish it awayto live for the old ways, for it to just not be there. The shit has piled up. It’s time to get rid of that pile. And look, the same is true of European countries, for ages. It goes in cycles there too. This is America’s first real go-round with the ugly truth. There’s a lot of cleaning up to do.

Let the clean-up begin with This Land.