Theo Bleckmann and The Westerlies Release Inspired Collaborative Album - This Land
Available January 29, 2021 from WESTERLIES RECORDS
Music Video "Look for the Union Label" WATCH NOW
“Making music in this time of shocking political insanity, human injustices and racial cruelties was only possible with a group of like-minded, deep-thinking and adventurous musicians like The Westerlies. Their sound brought me to tears upon first hearing, and it is with that pristine warmth that we can make music about a cold reality so we can find refuge together.” - Theo Bleckmann
“We set out thinking we'd make a record of protest music to unleash the anger and rage we all feel from all we are forced to witness in the Trump era. But instead what ended up with something much more honest: a set of songs old and new that encompass satire, love, sorrow, and fear in our shared musical language.” - Riley Mulherkar
It’s hard to imagine a match more ideal. Theo Bleckmann, Grammy®-nominated singer and new music composer, brings his eclectic tastes and prodigious gifts to This Land, a spirited and timely collaboration with The Westerlies. This youthful New York-based brass quartet is celebrated for its explorations of jazz, roots, and chamber music influences to create the rarest of hybrids: music that is both “folk-like and composerly, lovely and intellectually rigorous” (NPR Music).
On This Land, Bleckmann and The Westerlies combine their interpretive talent and wisdom, pairing songs of resistance with songs of refuge, seeking to balance music’s integral role in protest movements with the power of songs to provide internal solace amid external turmoil. The album stems from a June 2018 residency involving Bleckmann and The Westerlies at Yellow Barn, a chamber music center in Putney, Vermont. Combining original music, spirituals and material by Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Phil Kline and more, Bleckmann and The Westerlies create a vivid through-line from historical sources to our present moment, in a musical statement brimming with creativity, piercing insight and humor.
The leadoff track on This Land is “The Fiddle and the Drum,” from Joni Mitchell’s 1969 album Clouds, with an anti-war message that’s been associated with resistance movements since the ’60s. But no artist is more closely associated with American protest songs than Woody Guthrie, and his voice is channeled through The Westerlies in many iterations, from “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore” to “Tear the Fascists Down,” “Two Good Men” and “The Jolly Banker.” At the same time that Guthrie was writing his songs, Bertolt Brecht was a prominent international voice of freedom. His poem “Bitten der Kinder” was written in 1951 and set to music by Paul Dessau, originally written to be sung by a children’s choir but arranged here by Westerlies trumpeter Riley Mulherkar.
The protest song is also given a fresh new take in the work of American composer Phil Kline, a veteran of New York’s downtown scene. He wrote “Thoughts and Prayers” for Bleckmann and The Westerlies during their Yellow Barn residency, inspired by the words of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School survivor and activist Emma Gonzalez.
The theme of refuge surfaces in “Wade in the Water,” a spiritual work song from the Underground Railroad, a hymn of resistance and unification from one of many dark times in the African American struggle. Bleckmann arranges it here next to “Look for the Union Label,” a TV commercial song from the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (formerly the International Ladies' Garment Workers’ Union and other unions). Composed by R&B and soul artist Malcolm Dodds to a lyric by advertising executive Paula Green, the melody seems to strongly reference Jerome Kern’s “Look for the Silver Lining.”
Trombonist Andy Clausen composed “Land” while in residence at Yellow Barn. The piece sets words from the late Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali’s poem of the same title. Exploring the complexities of life as an Indian-American immigrant, Agha’s work colorfully illustrates the thematic and cultural poles of past and present: America and India, Islamic and American geography, American cities and former American Indian tribes.
True to their Seattle roots, The Westerlies find a Pacific Northwest voice of resistance in Joe Hill, a Swedish-American immigrant and organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. As Hill and other IWW organizers traveled to lumber and construction camps throughout the west, they would often encounter missionaries from the Salvation Army attempting to convert migrant workers to Christianity. One of the Salvation Army’s most popular hymns was “In the Sweet By and By,” and in response Joe Hill wrote a parody called “The Preacher and the Slave.” Trombonist Willem de Koch’s arrangement juxtaposes the two songs side by side, highlighting Hill’s cynically witty lyrics.
Bleckmann wrote “Another Holiday” in June 2016 shortly after the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. “This is a not a protest song,” says Bleckmann, “but a song about being without refuge, of being isolated from your family because of whom you love.” Clausen’s “Grandmar” touches on family as well: it was written in November 2017 shortly after the passing of his grandmother. According to Clausen, “The piece is a meditation on the challenges of loving someone with whom you have vehement political disagreements.”
Mulherkar’s “Looking Out” features text from FDR’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.
Theo Bleckmann has released numerous critically acclaimed recordings on the ECM and Winter & Winter labels. He has collaborated with a remarkable roster of contemporary musicians and composers including Laurie Anderson, Ambrose Akinmusire, Philip Glass, John Zorn, Ben Monder, Ulysses Owens Jr. Bang on a Can All-Stars and most prominently Meredith Monk, with whom Bleckmann worked as a core ensemble member for 20 years.
Comprised of four childhood friends from Seattle, The Westerlies have been hailed as “skilled interpreters who are also adept improvisers” (NPR’s Fresh Air). The ensemble has produced three critically acclaimed albums of genre-defying chamber music: the 2014 debut, Wish the Children Would Come On Home: The Music of Wayne Horvitz; a 2016 double-CD of primarily original compositions, The Westerlies; and the 2019 outing Wherein Lies the Good, featuring originals and songs by Judee Sill, Robin Holcomb, Charles Ives, the Golden Gate Quartet and more. Sought-after collaborators, The Westerlies are also featured on recordings by Fleet Foxes (Nonesuch), Vieux Farka Toure (Six Degrees) and Dave Douglas (Greenleaf Music).