I used to believe that when Tom Cora played the cello he channeled the voices of the dead. I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying, but I got the upshot. When he let loose his full range of extended techniques—dragging his bow below the bridge or across a wire tied to it, picking with three fingers as on a banjo, digitally sampling with foot pedals as he played to make counterpoint—his sound was like nothing else in the history of music. I even imagined (since I never read an explanation) that this unusual communication was why Tom had switched to cello from guitar, giving up bar bands to study Bach and the classics, only to forsake the classical repertoire and emerge as the greatest improvisational cellist ever. That’s an opinion, but he was almost certainly the first cellist to improvise without borrowing jazz approaches to bass or saxophone. Like the man, the music was sui generis.
Whether my belief was scary premonition or bad nerves, Cora is dead now, and his music is the only way he speaks to us; yet neither of his magnificent solo records is in print, and his countless collaborations left mostly transient traces on compilations. Two recent volumes redress the situation. Hallelujah, Anyway collects rare pieces both old (Tom playing the accordion in 1983) and new (a 1997 jam with French African musicians in Marseilles). Equally compelling are numerous songs and improvisations in tribute. Cora was a linchpin of new music in New York and Europe, and Hallelujah is a cross-section of an incredibly fertile community. All proceeds from the record will go to his young son.
It’s a Brand New Day comprises eight prime examples of Cora’s genius. Recorded live at the Knitting Factory by supporter Bruce Lee Gallanter, each piece (excepting the poignant solo “Hey, My Mosey Mose”) features the cellist with a different bunch of his closest partners, among them guitarist Fred Frith, harpist Zeena Parkins, drummer Samm Bennett, and Cora’s wife, the vocalist Catherine Jauniaux. The selection emphasizes his swinging, playful side, his love of gospel, his delight in (and delight in mangling) a good melody. Listening to his inspired riffs on “Ce Grand Neant,” it’s difficult to believe that Tom Cora is no longer among us. On the other hand, it’s difficult to believe he ever was.