Jazz great remembered

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 9, 2017.

A mural of the late Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is seen over a street in Montreal, Canada.

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Leonard Cohen’s songs strived for the universal and his voice was often solemn, yet the courtly songwriter had plentiful moments of joy and deadpan humour. One year after Leonard died at age 82, an array of artists testified to his far-reaching impact with a concert on Monday evening whose sombre yet graceful tone befitted the celebrated singer and poet.

Before more than 21,000 people at the Bell Centre arena in Leonard’s native Montreal, the tribute built around short videos of his well-travelled life which included years of artistic retreat on the Greek island of Hydra and a late-age stint as a Buddhist monk in California.

Leonard gazed down on the audience in the form of an illuminated portrait atop an image of a tower. Mist billowed over his picture which shrunk and disappeared at the end as the choir from his Shaar Hashomayim synagogue sang to Leonard’s recorded voice on You Want It Darker — the title track from his final album and the concert’s only foray into Leonard’s widely acclaimed but less-recognisable recent material.

The three-hour show was the only official event for Leonard since he was buried near his parents in Montreal a year earlier in a simple Jewish ceremony. It was anchored by repeat appearances from Adam Cohen, his son who spearheaded the evening, and two giants of British pop, Sting and Elvis Costello. Sting paid homage to a classic Leonard, one who evoked an erstwhile world of pop standards, as he opened the concert with Dance Me to the End of Love.

Costello packed a harder punch, covering the riddle-laden The Future, the song’s force built by the back-up orchestra’s string section and one of several powerful solos during the night on the bandurria lute by Javier Mas, a Spaniard who had toured with Leonard. The evening’s most effusive applause went to k.d. lang, who revived her richly emotional version of Hallelujah, the hymn of spiritual searching which Leonard took years to write.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared with his wife Sophie Gregoire, who recalled that she walked the aisle at their wedding to Hallelujah. Canada’s photogenic first couple also revealed that their wedding’s first dance was to Leonard’s I’m Your Man and proceeded to sing a few lines. Recalling Leonard’s friendship with his father, the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian leader said: “I like to think of the two of them together somewhere watching with a smile.”

US flags lit up the stage as members of The Lumineers covered Democracy, one of Leonard’s most overtly political songs. The 1992 track sounds newly pertinent in the age of President Donald Trump — elected a day after Cohen’s death in Los Angeles — with lines such as, “It’s coming to America first/ The cradle of the best and of the worst.”

Proceeds from the concert, dubbed Tower of Song, will support cultural groups including the Canada Council for the Arts, which backed Leonard’s early trip to Europe that ended in his long sojourn in Hydra. On the Greek island, Leonard fell in love with a Norwegian woman Marianne Ihlen, about whom he penned another of his best-known songs, So Long, Marianne.

Adam, born to his father’s later relationship with artist Suzanne Elrod, sang So Long, Marianne and added as a verse Leonard’s final letter to Ihlen, written before her death in July 2016, in which he confided, “I think I will follow you very soon.” 

Adam, who bears a striking resemblance to his father, dueted with Lana del Rey on Chelsea Hotel No 2, in which Leonard reminisced of a brief New York dalliance with Janis Joplin. Even if Del Rey’s melancholic voice bears little resemblance to Joplin’s, the sparse rendition seemed to dramatise another chapter in Leonard’s life.

In a heavier turn, grunge rocker Courtney Love, in her first concert performance in nearly two years, delivered a rapid-fire rock take on Everybody Knows. Other performers included singers Borns, Coeur de Pirate, Feist, Bettye LaVette and Damien Rice.

In a lighter moment, Canadian-born Hollywood star Seth Rogen recited from Leonard, who in his early career had tried his hand at stand-up comedy. “As a Canadian Jewish person, there is no higher honour than reading a Leonard Cohen poem in the middle of a hockey arena,” Rogen quipped. — AFP