Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jews and Blacks Join in This 'Yizkor'

Nat Hentoff writes an interesting piece in today's WS Journal.

There is now a recording, "Yizkor: Music of Memory" by David Chevan and the Afro-Semitic Experience (www.chevan.addr.com) – original, resonantly melodic jazz settings of Jewish prayers and psalms – that Mingus and I, if he were still here, could rise and share.

Hazzan Mizrahi's style, not often heard today, except in traditional synagogues, is Hazzanut, which startled me with its "cry" of the life force – and its vulnerability – when I was a child. Mr. Chevan calls it "a mixture of out-of-time recitative, some improvisation, and distinctive tunes." By "out-of-time," he means that "when the cantor moves from singing a tune to focus on individual words, those amazing improvised . . . highly ornamental melismas emerge. In some ways this is similar to what a gospel singer does; it is just that gospel more often stays in time."


The stunning impact of the Hazzanut way of singing is also shown by Ben Ratliff in his new book, "The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music" (Times Books). Ornette Coleman, the beyond-modern-jazz icon, told of the first time he was given a 1916 recording by Cantor Josef Rosenblatt (whose 78 rpm discs I began collecting when I was 13).

"I started crying like a baby," Coleman said. "The record was crying, singing, and praying, all in the same breath. And none of it was crossing each other. I said, 'Wait a minute. You can't find those "notes." They don't exist.'"

That is amazing: Ornette Coleman listening to a cantor? and digging him?

Long ago, when I recorded deep blues singer and pianist Otis Spann for the Candid label, I asked him what the listeners at the black blues clubs in Chicago came to hear. "They wanted," he said, "to hear stories about their own lives, and hopes."

In that context, Mr. Chevan says: "One of the most important Afro-Semitic Experience concerts we have ever given was at a Saturday night concert at St. Philips Moravian Church in Old Salem, N.C. This was a former slave church and many of its worshipers were buried beneath the floor of the church in order to avoid their graves being desecrated. It was a standing-room-only audience that was on its feet almost the entire night as we played for the ancestors beneath our feet."

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