Making Old Music Seem Very New Again


By Alexander Gelfand

Published July 28, 2006, issue of July 28, 2006.
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For most people, the past is an undiscovered country, a place we choose not to visit in our haste to get from the present to the future. For pianist Anthony Coleman, however, it’s an artistic goldmine.

When Coleman’s former teacher, Jaki Byard, died under mysterious circumstances in 1999 — shot by an unknown assailant in his home in Queens — it was as if the Great Library of Alexandria had been torched all over again. Byard was a walking repository of jazz history. It wasn’t just that he could play Harlem stride and swing and bebop; it was that he could play them the way they had originally been played, yet also combine them with elements of European art music and avant-garde jazz as if they were living, breathing things rather than ossified clichés. In Byard’s hands, the past came alive, forming a vivid present and a bridge to the future. Now that Byard is gone, Coleman gets my vote as the musician most likely to make everything old seem new again.

Coleman’s choice of material for his latest recording — “Shmutsige Magnaten: Coleman Plays Gebirtig,” a solo piano outing on John Zorn’s Tzadik label — is itself an exercise in historical revivalism. A Yiddish poet and songwriter from Krakow, Mordechai Gebirtig was killed in 1942 during the German occupation of Poland; his song “S’Brent” (“Our Town Is

Burning”), which describes a prewar pogrom in the town of Przytyk, became the anthem of the Jewish resistance in Krakow and remains a staple of Holocaust memorial ceremonies. “Shmutsige Magnaten” captures Coleman performing “S’Brent,” along with a number of Gebirtig’s lesser-known works, at a midnight recital in the Kupa Synagogue in Kazimierz, Gebirtig’s own neighborhood, during the 15th annual Krakow Jewish Culture Festival.

Coleman compares Gebirtig’s songs with those of American folksingers Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, and the songs do possess a similar rugged beauty. The pianist approaches each selection like a jeweler setting a stone, crafting a unique framework to suit the individual characteristics of every one. This is where Coleman’s encyclopedic range comes in handy; it’s hard to imagine anyone with a larger toolkit, or with more options at his disposal. Coleman sprinkles hints of clave and funk amid the thick, two-fisted textures of “Oy Bridlerl, L’Chaim.” On “Avreml der Marvikher” he launches into jaunty, dissonant stride, spiked with the rollicking New Orleans rhythms of Jelly Roll Morton. (Coleman intends to release a solo recording of Morton’s music, as well.) For “Mamenyu an Eytse,” Coleman employs a prepared piano that sounds at first like an enormous tsimbl, or hammered dulcimer, and then like a hammer and anvil, a vision of Eastern European folk music as imagined by John Cage. And on “S’Brent” he uses the same modified instrument to evoke a nightmarish soundscape in which fragments of melody haunt the cracks between metallic twangs, raucous crashes and ominous stretches of silence.

Coleman belongs to a generation of downtown improvisers given to pastiche and collage; but despite its range of references, his own work tends to feel highly integrated, like a mosaic in which differently colored bits of glass coalesce to form a single recognizable shape. Though portions of it are almost certainly improvised, his rendition of “Oreme Shnayderlekhe” proceeds with the continuity and elegance of a through-composed art song. Like everything else on this disc, it bears repeated listening.

The same can be said of pianist Jamie Saft’s take on the latest installment of John Zorn’s Masada songbook. “Astaroth: Book of Angels, Vol. 1,” also on Tzadik, has Saft and his crew working their way through a selection of Zorn’s slinky, neo-semitic compositions. Where Coleman constructs vast, sprawling edifices from Gebirtig’s Old World folksongs, Saft uses Zorn’s most recent batch of Masada material as fuel for a sleek jazz piano trio. Saft appeared on trumpeter Dave Douglas’s electronica-inflected album “Keystone” last year, and has worked in genres ranging from opera to hip hop. Here, he casts Zorn’s vaguely Sephardic melodies in the language of modern jazz. It’s no surprise that Zorn’s tunes should lend themselves to such interpretation, but for those who have never heard Saft in a traditional trio format, the pianist’s fluid, swinging delivery will come as a revelation.

The two albums could not be more different. One exposes tunes by a pre-eminent hipster to thoroughly contemporary treatment, while the other couches folkloric material in language that can be defiantly archaic. They do, however, have something important in common: Neither disappoints.

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