Vocalist and composter Theo Bleckmann defies expectations of the genre

Theo Bleckmann finds freedom in restraint

Like serious jazz players, vocalist and composer Theo Bleckmann is adept at improvisation, although he does not scat like trad jazz singers; the sonically shape-shifting music created by the onetime art student and his flexible backing combo lives somewhere between vocal jazz, cabaret and ambient pop.

His sober reading of Stephen Sondheim’s normally jaunty “Comedy Tonight” (from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”) is an illuminating demonstration of how he upends expectations, as well as his knife-edged skill at extracting complex feeling from a seemingly uncomplicated lyric.

Broadway show tunes are not uncommon in the German-born New York resident’s repertoire; Bleckmann frequently reaches beyond the jazz canon for material. He has collaborated with artists as diverse as Laurie Anderson and John Zorn, and his recordings with previous band lineups have featured interpretations of songs by an eclectic array of artists: Kate Bush, Allan Holdsworth, Joni Mitchell, Thelonious Monk, Mother Goose, Schumann and Kurt Weill, among others — a reflection of his desire to rehab and personalize vocal jazz “standards” for the 21st century.

On Bleckmann’s fine new album “Elegy,” the existential darkness of “Comedy” is counterbalanced by the sweet hope of “To Be Shown to Monks at a Certain Temple” and the theatrical romance of “Take My Life.” For much of the album he sings without words, layering his silky tones over pianist Shai Maestro and guitarist Ben Monder’s instrumental dialogue with sublime control. It is those delicate moments, when he finds freedom in restraint, that are paradoxically the most calming and exciting.

— Bliss Bowen

Theo Bleckmann performs at 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13, at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. $35. (310) 434-3200; thebroadstage.com; theobleckmann.com