Here It Is: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen
Beyond the gazillion artists who’ve tackled “Hallelujah” in his lifetime, the poetry of Leonard Cohen has been well and kindly celebrated by close collaborators and those most influenced by his words and work. Yet Cohen’s adroit musicality—the cunning nimble-fingeredness of his melodies that made up his tower of song—has never before been tested to the extent it is with the new various-artists comp Here It Is.
Producer and one-time Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock collaborator Larry Klein knows his way around eclectic, elastic jazz, and to that end welcomed a core band of guitarist Bill Frisell, saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, pianist Kevin Hays, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Nate Smith (wiith Greg Leisz on pedal steel and Larry Goldings on organ) to manipulate the subtle majesty of Cohen’s music for a murderer’s row of vocalists on a varied, often less-than-obvious selection of tracks.
Brazilian jazz-chamber vocalist Luciana Souza appropriates the blunt cut of “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” as something more casual and relaxed-fit, as does Cohen’s folkie contemporary James Taylor on “Coming Back to You.” What’s interesting about hearing Taylor’s sand-and-smoke vocals wrapped around such coy and clever lines is that you’re reminded of how simply effective an interpreter of the shades of human emotion Taylor can be when he puts his mind to it. The same is true of the fine, flat-line readings of the soulful “Steer Your Way” from Norah Jones and the surprisingly cool serpentine of “Hallelujah” by Sarah McLachlan.
“If It Be Your Will” becomes gospelized, caramelized putty in the hands of Mavis Staples, while Peter Gabriel’s take on the title track never shies from Cohen’s own high watermark of spirituality and stateliness, with both tracks acting as exemplars of matching the perfect words and Klein’s sloe-gin fizzy arrangements to their correct voices. No one, though, is more aptly matched to Cohen’s deftly quick-witted and humorous sense of finality than Iggy Pop lending his existential Franco-louche-jazz touch to “You Want It Darker.”
All that voice and yet it’s two instrumentals on Here It Is that stand out the sharpest. While Frisell goes his wiry, yawning American wide vista thing across the slow plains of “Bird on the Wire,” saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins—a thoughtful, holy Coltrane for the 21st century—leads the wounded romanticism of “Avalanche,” its golden hills and conquered pain, through more emotionally driven sluices and valleys than imagined. Leonard Cohen probably imagined all of these possibilities, but that’s a query for another day.