Guitar Master Series Finale

Strange and Beautiful Sounds at Zinc Bar

By Kaju Roberto

From Left to Right: Theo Bleckman, Ben Monder, Tom Rainey. Photo by Kaju Roberto

Haunting, beautiful, insane, incendiary, bizarre, meditative, and alien.

These are just a few words that only begin to describe the sounds I heard coming from the trio of Theo Bleckman, Ben Monder, and Tom Rainey at the final performance of the Guitar Master Series at Zinc Bar located in the Village on West 3rd Street on October 9th. It was a fitting conclusion for the series.

As Theo correctly quipped to the engaged audience, “This place definitely has the best cocktails!” Indeed, with cocktails named “Strangers in the Night,” “Coltrane,” “The Birth of Cool,” and “Dark and Stormy,” as well as specialty craft beers from several countries, how could they not?
To add to the mood, the atmosphere of the club was dark and homey. However, even the great cocktails and Art Deco ambiance were overshadowed by this powerful trio’s intriguing free-jazz musical performance.

Some of the sonic interplay between the three often defied categorization, it was a sublime cacophony of jungle sounds, medieval chants, thundering drums, curious clicks, and a barrage of muted rapid-fire guitar notes smoldering underneath heavy blankets.

From the onset of the trio’s immersive performance, they played their first piece continuously for nearly 45 minutes. For the first five minutes, I wasn’t sure if they had actually started, or whether they were still testing their instruments.

Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and composer Theo Bleckman is one of the most original and versatile vocalists I’ve ever heard. During the entire performance, he produced unique sounds I did not think were possible from the human voice, spanning a wide range gamut from soft contemplative musings, to Mongolian throat squalls, to high operatic belts. It’s no surprise that Theo has been a perennial Top 5 pick in Downbeat Magazine’s Best Jazz Vocal category.

Pitching the Trio’s Performance

Picture this. With his left hand holding a mic, Theo is perched high onstage wailing in front of a small effects board that his right hand is controlling, which has turned his voice into this ever-evolving magical instrument. He is continually experimenting and coaxing strange yet beautiful sounds out of his instrument, producing vocalizations that travel deep into the bowels of a medieval echo chamber, and then randomly alternating such beautiful vocal ambiance with sudden high pitched jungle calls.

There are other times when Theo is softly singing meditative hymns or sounds like he is playing a Theremin.

What?! Theo now can be seen rubbing has hands together, creating insanely-fast clicking sounds with a Native American Monkey Drum. Then without warning, he switches the mood entirely – he is now either blowing into a rotating “peace pipe” or has started playing random bell-tones with small mallets using his right hand (while holding the mic in his left) with a xylophone over the guitar’s droning massive “wall of sound” effect!

Meanwhile seated center stage, acclaimed jazz guitarist Ben Monder’s fingerstyle assault on his ES-335 electric hollow body, at any given moment, could often be seen as softly plucked ethereal sounding piano-like high harmonics, followed by wildly strumming a barrage of muted machine gun-like rapid-fire guitar tones.

Drummer Tom Rainey perfectly interwove a highly versatile use of all the instrument’s percussive qualities, at first exchanging delicate taps of the bells, rims, hit-hat, and cymbals by subtly stroking them with brushes and mallets, then later mixing up everything switching to sticks and smoking powerfully fast and thunderous Gene Krupa-like runs around the kit.

I sensed a distinctive Eastern influence to their soundscape, with hypnotic droning sounds, and the occasional underlying deep low growl of a random Tibetan long horn (dungchen), an instrument often used by Tibetan Buddhist monks and in Mongolian Buddhist ceremonies.

The sonic exchange onstage between Theo, Ben, and Tom created an alien, esoteric, and exotic world music that at times could transport me into a trance-like state.

Theo’s onstage chemistry with Ben (who he shared wild improvisations with) felt so unexpected yet in-sync that I thought they shared in telepathy. It’s no wonder they’ve maintained a long-time collaboration.

The Ending Highlight: Norwegian Wood

Theo showed his remarkable vocal range with a series of operatic high soaring notes, wild animal jungle calls, growls, and whistles leading to the buildup to the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”
Then he quickly placed a small “drum” in his mouth, and began making maddening vocalizations by contorting his mouth while twisting something that appeared like a drumstick! Meanwhile, Ben was playing incredibly fast electronic sounding single-note runs all over the guitar!

Fittingly, this buildup led to the highlight. Over Ben’s chaotic strumming of a distorted two-chord motif, and Tom’s incredibly busy drumming, Theo sang a noble version of “Norwegian Wood” which was definitely the most “traditional singing” of the night.

And just when I thought the song was over, here comes Theo again with some of the weirdest “playing the record backwards” vocal sounds I’ve ever heard. He’s yodeling into the mic while adjusting the board again!

A great way to end a very intriguing performance!

Kaju Roberto is an accomplished musician, singer/ songwriter, journalist, and an award-winning producer. He is the artist Rad Jet on Spotify.