Blue Note Records Honors Leonard Cohen with Inspired Tribute

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Norah Jones opens Here It Is: A Tribute To Leonard Cohen (Blue Note) with a delicate, wistful rendition of “Steer Your Way.”

(Photo: Blue Note)

There’s a reason why, for more than five decades, Leonard Cohen’s songs have been covered by countless artists across the musical spectrum, including some of the greatest of our time. Nina Simone’s ethereal “Suzanne” comes to mind, as does Johnny Cash’s “Bird On A Wire,” Roberta Flack’s “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” Nick Cave’s acoustic version of “Avalanche,” Lana Del Rey’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” and R.E.M’s “First We Take Manhattan.” And then there are the many artists who have recorded renditions of the iconic “Hallelujah,” including Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Jeff Buckley, k.d lang, John Cale and Rufus Wainwright (accompanied by a choir of 1,500 singers). Here It Is: A Tribute To Leonard Cohen (Blue Note), released Oct. 14, offers new windows into Cohen’s catalog, with inspired interpretations of his music and a production that celebrates his songs while honoring his poetry.

The album was produced by musician, composer and four-time Grammy winner Larry Klein, who shared a close friendship with Cohen during the last 15 years of his life. Conceptually, it evokes Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning River: The Joni Letters (2007), which Klein also produced, featuring Cohen on one of the tracks. Here, 12 carefully selected cuts span the breadth of Cohen’s oeuvre, from the 1967 debut Songs Of Leonard Cohen to his final album, You Want It Darker, released just days before his passing in 2016. With an exceptional level of musicianship, 10 diverse vocalists accompanied by a stellar ensemble of jazz musicians dig into classics as well as less familiar songs, all receiving sensitive and sometimes unexpected treatments, yielding unique and often breathtaking performances.

The broad range of artists featured on the album, spanning generations, genres and approaches, highlights the expansive and enduring nature of Cohen’s work, which transcends not only musical classification and appeal, but race, religion and gender. Cohen inspires a deep dive into the human condition, eliciting passionately felt and profoundly expressed performances that are also very different. Norah Jones opens with a delicate, wistful rendition of “Steer Your Way,” a later song reminiscent of an early Cohen classic, followed by Peter Gabriel’s haunting vocals on the title track, evoking Cohen’s own voice. Steeped in gospel, Mavis Staples’ sublime rendition of “If It Be Your Will” resonates like a prayerful supplication, juxtaposed with the preceding track, where punk godfather Iggy Pop offers an aptly dark, gravelly “You Want It Darker.” British folktronica-alt-rock singer-songwriter David Gray’s take on “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” is followed by Nathaniel Rateliff’s soulful, compelling folk-roots-Americana on “Famous Blue Raincoat.”

The country-tinged “Coming Back To You,” performed by James Taylor and cut, at the producer’s suggestion, in Cohen’s original key, hits the bottom of Taylor’s own range. Gregory Porter’s distinctive nuances permeate “Suzanne,” a bluesy bent note repeatedly accentuating the chorus’ final word; deeply emotive, Sarah McLachlan graces “Hallelujah,” beautifully complemented by her accompanists.

The core band is, according to Klein, “a group of the most prescient and forward-looking musicians in the jazz world” featuring guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Scott Colley, drummer Nate Smith, saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and pianist Kevin Hays, with contributions by Larry Goldings on organ and Greg Leisz on pedal steel. “It was important that the core band think of music in a non-generic sense, that they didn’t see specific lines between genres, hearing music as music, and also that they’d be able to work off of words” in developing a musical language together that re-contextualizes Cohen’s poems.

As Peter Gabriel notes, this is “an extraordinary group of musicians, all wonderful players who know well both how to bring something to life and how to stay out of the way of a great song” — something that was of paramount importance to Klein.

“What I was endeavoring to do was to not get in the way of the poetry,” Klein says, “because that was something that bothered Leonard about a lot of the covers that were done of his music, and even with his own versions.” Particularly those that sounded overly performative and dramatic, or overly preoccupied with virtuosity, obscuring the profound sentiments Cohen so painstakingly tried to express. And so Klein approached the musicians “more cinematically, in a way that hopefully served as more of an underscore.”

Cohen’s musicality and melodic talent, often overlooked, is perhaps most apparent on the album’s two instrumental tracks. “Bird On The Wire,” the album closer, features Bill Frisell — a perfect conduit. “Bill has such a beautiful, understated lyricism to his playing that I knew just having him interpret that simple melody would be something touching,” reflects Klein. And Frisell credits Klein for “setting up a world for us where we could all be ourselves. Take chances. Trust. No one was afraid of making a mistake. That’s how the light gets in” (a reference to the poignant lines from Cohen’s “Anthem”: “There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in”).

The second instrumental is “Avalanche” (Songs Of Love And Hate, 1971), led by Wilkins on alto. At 24 the youngest artist showcased on the album, Wilkins speaks to the timelessness, reach and relevance of Cohen’s music. He remembers hearing “Hallelujah” and “Suzanne” at his middle school talent show, students singing the songs “like they were the newest thing on the radio.” What inspired Klein to enlist this promising young musician? “I could tell from his playing, and what he was doing in his own music, that he wasn’t a player who felt he needed to prove something, and that he’d be able to access the poetic aspect of the project,” recalls Klein. With a sensibility that far exceeds his years, Wilkins captures the lyricism and emotional intensity of Cohen’s writing: tender, anguished, wailing, whispering.

“I once read that the purpose of poetry is to deepen the humanness in us. Leonard’s poems certainly do that,” muses vocalist Luciana Souza, who delivers a tender, poetic rendition of the early “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.” Touching the core of Cohen’s universal allure and the enduring quality of his work, she notes that “with Larry’s producing and this incredible landscape of artists and musicians, we are invited to a quiet and powerful reconnection with our humanity — something much needed these days.” DB




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