Sunday, March 15, 2009
From Coleman to Cantors
Sometimes a confluence of events in our lives is like a prophetic dream, preparing us for a new revelation or a forgotten treasure newly revealed. Or, maybe it's just like seeing a color in someones hair and then noticing it everywhere.
I had been reading a biography of the composer Harold Arlen and noted with some interest that his father was a cantor; dictionarily defined as, applicable in this case, "in a synagogue, the person who chants the liturgy and leads the congregation in prayer" - really a "singer" of Jewish liturgical song. I had a strong emotional pull towards this type of song, and a vague memory of it stirred inside of me, filed within as "things I've got to look deeper into one of these days".
The night after I had read that passage about Arlen's father, I was having a break at the bar of a restaurant where a group of us play a kind of experimental jazz, not so much songs as "happenings into song" or "sound evolvements" or, (as it may appear to some) how about "mindless doodlings"?
Steve Jansen, one of my musical cohorts, who creates "soundscapes" from odd items, is also a journalist who has interviewed a fair number of jazz artists. We got to chatting about Ornette Coleman, whom we both dig musically, and the absolutely unfathomably perplexing explanations and declarations that come out of his mouth. I remarked that it would be interesting to "loop" some of these statements into a creative musical patchwork as they stand alone as wondrous ciphers. I mean, what does one make of;
"It's impossible for you never to have existed at all, because when you didn't know that you existed, you did exist." ? And so forth...
At work in the library the following day I happened upon a book by Ben Ratliff called "The Jazz Ear" , a series of his ruminations and interviews with jazz players and composers. This book was of particular interest because Ratliff asks the artist to choose some recordings - not their own work - to play and discuss at the interviews.
In the book I found an interview with Ornette Coleman. Curious about the records Ornette would choose, I was pleasantly surprised that he had asked Ratliff to bring something by Cantor Joseph "Yossele" Rosenblatt. Ratliff brought a 1916 recording of Rosenblatt singing "Tikanto Shabbas" a psalm put to song. Also, what Ornette had to say was, for him, very direct.
Ornette on Rosenblatt;
"I was once in Chicago, about twenty-some years ago. A young man said, 'I'd like you to come by so I can play something for you.' I went down to his basement and he put on Joseph Rosenblatt and I started crying like a baby. The record he had was crying, singing, praying, all in the same breath. And none of it was crossing each other. It was all separate. I said, 'Wait a minute. You can't find those notes. Those are not "notes" They don't exist." Yossele Rosenblatt
As I listened to Rosenblatt myself, (this recording and others are available on youtube and elsewhere), I remembered where I had heard a cantor's song that moved me to tears and had sown the seed of curiosity about this music; it was in the Italian movie The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, based on a novel by Giorgio Bassano, and brought to fruition on film by Vittorio De Sica in 1970.
The story centers on the story of two Jewish families in Ferrara (the movie was filmed on location), Italy who have very different views on the events surrounding the rise of Mussolini, Hitler, and the fate that awaited them with the advent of war.
It was De Sica's last major film. Having been lauded early on for the "neo-realism" of The Bicycle Thief, and Umberto D he subsequently had fallen out of grace with critics for his "lighter" work and, after almost 15 years, The Garden was agreed to be a fine, though different, return to his former glory.
Unavailable from any existing cd recording, on youtube I was able to find on a trailer clip (?) for "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" the beautiful, incomparable recording of Cantor Sholom Katz singing "El Male Rahimim" or "Keil Molei Rachamim" It comes in about 52 seconds into the clip and should not be missed!
From SaveTheMusic.com I did find this bit about Sholom Katz, acknowledged as one of the greatest recorded cantors;
"Sholom Katz was born in Grosswardein, Hungary. At an early age he was already displaying his unique ability before vast audiences. When he was only twenty years old, he won the post of cantor at the famed Kishinever Shul, with a three year contract. His next position was in the Hecker Shul where the renowned Shlomoh Zalmon Razomne once officiated as Cantor.
In 1942 in a Nazi concentration camp, Sholom was among 1600 Jews scheduled for mass execution. He received permission to sing the Keil Molei Rachamim (Prayer for the Dead) while the prisoners were digging their graves. The Nazi commandant, impressed with his voice, spared him to sing for the officers, and the next day he was allowed to escape, the only one of 1600 spared a brutal death."(italics are mine)
What can one say after that?
* The picture at the top of the page is of the Synagogue in Ferrara, Italy.