Bleckmann, Olatuja, Tepfer, Hajdu: The Parsonage

Tales of a once bohemian now gentrified New York house worth $18m are told in theatrical style backed by orchestrations with hints of jazz

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A weird gang of ghosts lives at 64 East 7th Street in New York City. The Parsonage for St. Mark’s Church was built there in 1889. A communist was arrested in the house after laughing when a bomb exploded on Wall Street in 1920. Yoko Ono performed experimental art at a ground-floor restaurant in the 1960s. And it was recently sold as a luxury residence complete with roof garden and pizza oven for $18.6m.

Eight composers tell the building’s wild tale in The Parsonage. Author David Hajdu wrote lyrics that are sung by Theo Bleckmann and Alicia Olatuja, with pianist Dan Tepfer leading an instrumental ensemble. Each track mimics a musical style from the time of the events described. The overall effect feels closer to Broadway than the East Village.

The story starts with Sailing To The Sunday School Picnic. In 1904, St. Mark’s Church hired a steamboat to take families on a day trip to Long Island. The boat caught fire and over 1,000 people died. During a rumbling piano passage, panicked screams rise and then fade.

Living Light is a standout track. The lyrics are sparse, leaving open room for Tepfer’s piano to create meaning in the moment. It’s a refreshing contrast to the straightjacketed orchestrations that characterise the album.

Eighteen Million Six wraps things up by loping along the sidewalk with a world-weary gait. Its lyrics are taken from the real-estate advert for the building which included the bold statement “Site history: Not applicable.”

The Parsonage is an interesting project with a fascinating subject, but its hokey lyrics and hammed-up vocals fall slightly flat without characters or a stage. It might make a nice gift for whoever lives at 64 East 7th Street today. But they can probably afford to commission their own version.

Discography
Sailing To The Sunday School Picnic; Ballad Of The Man Who Laughed; Translation, Two Cigar Butts; East In The Village; Living Light; Lou Reed Was Very Well Read; Glamour And Standing; Eighteen Million Six (44.05)
Carl Maraghi (bcl); Dan Tepfer (p); Erik Friedlander (clo); Sean Smith (b); Theo Bleckmann (v); Alicia Olatuja (v); David Hajdu (lyrics). New York, 2023.
Sunnyside Records SSC1685