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Tom Cora, who has died aged 44, was one of the key figures to emerge from the New York "downtown" scene of the late 1970s. He described himself as "a musician who happens to play cello." In a time when hybridity was becoming the new orthodoxy, the savvy and easy-going Cora could draw on a technique that refreshed every context. He was in constant demand as a performer for the last twenty years in both America and Europe.
Cora was born in Yancey Mills, Virginia and made his musical debut as a drummer on local tv's "Dandy Doodle Show." In the mid-seventies he worked as house-guitarist in a Washington, DC jazz club. He described his decision to take up the cello as "completely irrational and impulsive". He studied initially with Luis Garcia-Renart, a student of Casals; and later with the vibraphonist Karl Berger at Creative Music Studios in West Hurly, near Woodstock, New York, where he became Dean of Admissions. A musician of prodigious ability and wide interests, he constructed instruments for and played in The Moose Skowron Memorial Tuned Metal Ensemble; toured Europe with a group led by Berger that included Lee Konitz and Don Cherry; and formed the screwball art-rock combo Curlew with George Cartwright and Bill Laswell. By 1979 Cora had gravitated inevitably to New York, where he swiftly became the collaborator of choice for many of the movers in Manhattan's new music circles. With Steve Beresford, Fred Frith and Mark Kramer, he was part of the group that performed Eugene Chadbourne's "The English Channel" and John Zorn's "Archery". These seminal works exploded notions of composition and were informed by a sense absurdist humour. Intellectually rigorous, they foregrounded the techniques of non-idiomatic improvisation at which Cora was already adept, while retaining a sense of deep structure. This attention paid to form combined with a rule-testing approach to content were characteristic of Cora's entire career. With his saturnine good looks and gaunt demeanour, he brought a hint of American Gothic to the ever-shifting cartoon soundtrack of the downtown scene. Poised over his instrument and more often than not with all four limbs busy playing something, his was a compelling stage presence. Cora was warm humoured, unassuming but sharp. Rehearsing with Butch Morris in a conducted improvisation, he was accused of neglecting to follow the conductor's gestures. "Tom, why aren't you playing?" Morris demanded. A keen judge of the eloquence of silence and the importance of listening, Cora dryly countered, "I am playing."
In the early '80s he toured the dive-bars and honky-tonks of North America in Eugene Chadbourne's "shockabilly" group, The Chadbournes, mixing country and western, punk and free improv. The negligible fees and the baffled hostility of Reagan-era rednecks proved instructive when the cyclically lean times of the avant-garde musician beset him in the years that followed. Downsizing was one way to deal with economic necessities and also presented new musical challenges. In 1982 with the guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Fred Frith, he formed Skeleton Crew, touring extensively as a "double one-man band", each adding drums to their respective instruments. Always politically aware, Cora was also active in a marching band project, which he led in numerous protests against US policies in Central America.
The late '80s and early '90s were busy for Cora. Two solo albums, "Live at the Western Front" and "Gumption in Limbo," were released, drawing in equal measures on Casals and Bahamian folk guitarist Joseph Spence, and utilising elaborately prepared and electronically modified cello. With Cartwright he reformed Curlew, touring extensively in Europe. He also formed the "virtual trio" Third Person with percussionist Samm Bennett and featuring guests such as Mark Ribot and Steve Lacy. With one eye on his R&B roots and the other on Eastern European folk music, he collaborated with the Dutch anarchist band The Ex on "Scrabbling at the Lock", a powerful record which unexpectedly but deservedly won the 1991 Dutch Popular Music Award.
In the 1990s, Cora moved to Europe, where he married the singer Catherine Jauniaux, starting a family in the south of France. He worked regularly with Marseilles's A.M.I. new music organisation, performing with local DJs and visitors to the international MIMI Festival. He was a member of the post-rock quartet Roof, with the singer Phil Minton, which caused a stir on the European avant-garde circuit. Like most of his contemporaries, his reputation in Britain was sustained largely by recordings, complemented by the uniformly glowing reports of fellow musicians. He played here only occasionally - with The Ex, on their 1992 British tour; and again in 1997, to play with Roof at the LMC Festival of Experimental Music in London.
His death from melanoma followed intensive chemotherapy, which increasingly prevented him from working at his usual pace. He had intended to perform in several line-ups at this summer's Musique Action Festival in Nancy-Vandoeuvre, France. But his instinctive optimism and the support of his many admirers could no longer sustain him. Cora's playing was characterised by meticulous precision and a subtle sense of proportion. It was entirely characteristic of him to send an e-mail to all his closest friends, wishing them good bye on the eve of his death.
Thomas Henry Corra (Tom Cora), musician, born 14 September 1953. Died 9 April 1998.
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