We knew that there was a time when Cantors were the Jewish spiritual world's equivalent of rock stars, when they juggled careers in the synagogue with the bling allure of Broadway and the Opera stage. We knew that Richard Tucker could put out LPs for Shabbat and Yom Kippur one minute, then show up on a Christmas album the next, right alongside Sammy Davis Jr. and Dina Shore. We knew that Bela Herskovitz showed up on This Is Your Life and then played Carnegie Hall with Eddie Cantor. We knew that Cantors played the Catskills just like Tito Puente and Buddy Hackett, only the Cantors got backing from symphony orchestras. We knew that Al Jolson and Harold Arlen were the sons of Cantor fathers and often spoke of Cantorial commonalities with African-American spirituals, blues, and jazz. We knew that Johnny Mathis did his Cantorial best on his own version of "Kol Nidre."
But we had no idea that Yossele Rosenblatt, arguably the greatest U.S. based Cantor of the 20th century (and the highest paid-- he could get up to 15k for a single Yom Kippur gig) was a voice in the head of jazz legend Ornette Coleman. In his fantastic new book, The Jazz Ear, NY Times critic Ben Ratliff sits down with Coleman to listen to music that Coleman chooses. His first pick is a 1916 recording of Rosenblatt singing "Tikanto Shabbos," a mix of crying, singing, and praying that when Coleman first heard it, made him cry. "I said, wait a minute," he tells Ratliff. "You can't find those notes. Those are not 'notes.' They don't exist...I think he's singing pure spiritual. He's making the sound of what he's experiencing as a human being, turning it into the quality of his voice, and what he's singing to is what he's singing about. We hear it as 'how he's singing.' But he's singing about something. I don't know what it is, but it's bad.”
These days it's easy to conflate old-school Cantors with frozen tradition (Warner Brothers wanted the Ukranian-born Rosenblatt to play Jolson's stubborn Orthodox father in The Jazz Singer-- Rosenblatt declined), write them off as symbols of conservatism or insular identity. But Coleman's ears remind us of the great Cantorial legacy in American and Jewish music, re-establishing Cantors as practitioners of avant-garde outness, as spirit voices departing from the soul and heading up and out for what Sun Ra used to call "other planes of there," or in the words of Coleman himself, "something else!!!!"