Making Old Music Seem Very New Again


By Alexander Gelfand

Published July 28, 2006, issue of July 28, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.