Recording of January 2023: Here It Is: A Tribute To Leonard Cohen

Here It Is: A Tribute To Leonard Cohen
Norah Jones, Peter Gabriel, Gregory Porter, Sarah McLachlan, Luciana Souza, James Taylor, Iggy Pop, Mavis Staples, David Gray, Nathaniel Rateliff, vocals; Bill Frisell, guitar; Immanuel Wilkins, alto saxophone; Kevin Hays, piano, Estey; Scott Colley, bass; Nate Smith, drums; Gregory Leisz, pedal steel guitar; Larry Goldings, Hammond organ
Blue Note B003552102 (CD, available as download, LP). 2022. Larry Klein, prod.; Adam Greenspan, eng.; other engineers for seven vocal tracks.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

This is not just another Leonard Cohen tribute album. It is an ambitious, unified work of art. The performances are all new. They constitute a profound encounter with a towering figure among North American songwriters.

The producer is Larry Klein, who has won Grammy awards for his collaborations with people like Joni Mitchell (his ex-wife) and Herbie Hancock. For this project, Klein assembled a world-class jazz ensemble and recorded 12 tracks in The Village, a studio in Los Angeles. Then he recruited 10 prominent vocalists, from 10 different genres, to sing one Cohen song each. Gregory Porter, Luciana Souza, and Nathaniel Rateliff recorded their tracks in The Village. Norah Jones, James Taylor, Peter Gabriel, Sarah McLachlan, Mavis Staples, David Gray, and Iggy Pop recorded their tracks in studios around the world.

Leonard Cohen was never a "good singer" in the traditional sense. His typical presentation was somewhere between talking and singing. But his deep, stark, untrained voice laid bare the searing poetry of his lyrics. The fascination of Here It Is comes from hearing nine real singers (plus Iggy Pop), with their unique vocal instruments and their extraordinary interpretive gifts, apply themselves to these great songs.

Klein made a crucial production decision: He did not want the singers to trot out their chops, but to take a "more conversational" approach so as "not to get in the way of [Cohen's] poetry." As the singers bring measured versions of their virtuosity to this project, they reveal a paradox of art: The more deeply they give themselves up to the songs—the more selfless they sound—the more they make these songs their own.

Gregory Porter's rich, powerful baritone is turned inward, as if he is thinking "Suzanne" to himself. James Taylor sings a lesser-known Cohen piece, "Coming Back to You," in Cohen's original key, which is at the bottom of his own voice's range. His spare, plainspoken, sometimes halting reading is very moving. "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" is a song of parting, from Cohen's debut album in 1967. Luciana Souza's gorgeous voice turns parting into a celebration of love's transcendence. "Steer Your Way" is from Cohen's final recording, You Want It Darker, released 17 days before his death in 2016. Norah Jones's version is light and airy and, consequently, chilling. David Gray, a British pop star, has a pure, penetrating, captivating voice. Nathaniel Rateliff, a rough-hewn Americana troubadour, also has a captivating voice, for opposite reasons: He broods into a microphone and enables you to share the struggle of his journey. Their interpretations of "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" and "Famous Blue Raincoat," respectively, are personal, credible, and therefore universal. Sarah McLachlan's wailing, soaring "Hallelujah" is epic. She burns through those legendary lyrics, leaving behind only the ash of their enigma.

The band is wonderfully overqualified for backing up singers. Alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, just 24, is one of the most exciting talents to enter jazz in the new millennium, a wild daredevil improviser. He stays within himself here in order to serve the music, but his solo breaks are still startling in their freshness and intensity. Bill Frisell, the most important guitarist in jazz and Wilkins's senior by almost 50 years, is able to focus his vast guitar language into concise interludes of distilled lyricism. The entire support system for the vocalists, including the gentle throbs of the rhythm section (Kevin Hays/Scott Colley/Nate Smith), is beautiful. There are two stunning instrumental tracks. Wilkins smokes "Avalanche." Frisell turns "Bird on the Wire," that simple anthem of complex love, into a secular hymn.

The sonic quality is dynamic and vibrant. All the singers, whether in L.A. or somewhere else, sound organically integrated into the mix.

To sit down with this album the first time is a revelation. These special musicians give Cohen's songs new life. To keep listening is to end up with Leonard Cohen inside your head. You can't escape his imagery, those locks of hair, those missed trains, those burning candles, those holy doves, those places near the river. You end up obsessed by the same women who haunted Cohen, those mysterious Suzannes and Nancys and Janes, who pass through these songs and then fade back into the mists of time.—Thomas Conrad

JackG's picture

Is the Ace of Aces

PeterG's picture

I bought this on a whim a couple of weeks ago and was shocked at just how good it is. Like Dylan covers, Cohen covers are revelatory in the right hands, and the musicians and engineers have just crushed it. Maybe my favorite album of 2022

PeterG's picture

I bought this on a whim a couple of weeks ago and was shocked at just how good it is. Like Dylan covers, Cohen covers are revelatory in the right hands, and the musicians and engineers have just crushed it. Maybe my favorite album of 2022