One Track Mind: Tom Cora "Halleluhjah Anyway" (1987)

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by Pico

This week my contributions to the pile of music reviews got a little bit off the road with William Parker then Bill Frisell. Since we’re already off the pavement, I might as well head straight into the culvert with a panegyrist over a Tom Cora performance.

Tom Cora, you ask? Ahh yes, the late, lamented patron saint of whack jazz cello. In case you haven’t noticed, the cello has been a common theme in this space of late; Paul Buckmaster contributed a little electric cello to Miles Davis’ On The Corner sessions. Tony Levin put down his Stick for a bowed bass in last week’s OTM, “Cracking The Midnight Glass.” But none of those guys could hold a candle to Cora.

Tom Cora attacked the cello much like John Zorn attacks his saxophone, coaxing some of the most disharmonious noises ever to come out of the instrument. Having arrived on the New York experimental music scene about the same time as Zorn, it was only natural that he would appear on Zorn recordings (Archery, from 1981), as well as records by Fred Frith and Eugene Chadbourne.

But unlike these like-minded artists, Cora left behind a scant discography under his own name when he died of melanoma in 1998 at only forty-four years of age. What is available are mostly hard-to-find live recordings.

One of the rarer ones also contains one of his best taped performances: a stunning 1987 gig called Live At The Western Front. A solo concert armed with an amped-up cello, Cora brought an anarchist punk attitude to the traditionally staid orchestral instrument. It’s a definitive statement of his prowess and he slays all pretenders to the throne of experimental bowed bass, as if anyone was daring enough to try.

The fifth selection “Halleluhjah Anyway” isn’t so much an actual song, it’s a montage of some of the oddest sounds ever to come out of a bowed bass. Squeaks, pings. pops, wheezes, scratches, cranks and croaks—even bizarre electronic noises which at times made the cello sound like an airplane and others like a heavy metal guitar.

There’s actually a few relatively sane moments in this eleven minute mind-fornication, like when he’s plucking to a bluegrass rhythm while singing along to it (although since his voice wasn’t miked, it’s hard to tell if he was singing any lyrics much less singing on key). There are other astonishing performances from this date; shoot, “Gumption In Limbo” is probably better still. But “Halleluhjah Anyway” is more delightfully reckless.

Sometimes you want songs with discernible structures and melodies and other times you just want to hear someone run roughshod over convention. When I’m in the mood to play in the ditch, Tom Cora’s music makes me feel happy as a pig in slop.

Purchase: Tom Cora – Live at the Western Front

“One Track Mind” is a more-or-less weekly drool over a single song selected on a whim and a short thesis on why you should be drooling over it, too.

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