Sublime all-star salute with the National Symphony Orchestra

By: Apr. 29, 2024
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The producer Larry Klein honored the memory of Leonard Cohen with a 2022 tribute album that had a hushed sensibility and taste, as well as an impressive array of vocalists. Hoping to continue that feel, he began work on an equally fine performance version with the same title, “This is Now: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen,” which played two nights with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center over the weekend. 

With an almost entirely different slate of singers involved, it still counted on most of the formidable jazz septet on the record, led by singular guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, with bassist Scott Colley and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz. A couple of new additions were pianist Paul Cornish and drummer Kendrick Scott.

But the biggest shift, of course, was the addition of the National Symphony Orchestra with lovely and moving special arrangements from Vince Mendoza, who also conducted, adding sublime color to the tonal shifts and emotional underpinning.

Bringing the same approach that earned him Grammys for Joni Mitchell’s orchestral jazz albums at the early part of this century, “Travelogue” and “Both Sides Now,” the music would swell in melodic counterpoint to the effective intonations of Cohen’s deathless lyrics, from whatever vocalist involved. 

Klein, Mitchell's onetime husband,  had co-produced and was musical director of those two recordings as well, so the two men worked exceptionally well in producing this achievement for another songwriting giant in a show that was being efficiently taped for a future TV project. 

Klein began the evening with a heartfelt eulogy for his friend, who died in 2016, and a  reading from Cohen’s poem “Mission” (“I’ve worked at my work / I’ve slept at my sleep / I’ve died at my death / and now I can leave”). 

He also said he hoped that presenting Cohen’s songs in new ways would open them up for new consideration.

That was the case with the opening performer, the Grammy-winning young folk artist Madison Cunningham, who began with the song Cohen often began his own concerts, “Dance Me to the End of Love” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” bringing a ringing melodicism to what can often be a gruff readings by its author.

Jazz singer Gregory Porter, in his trademark cap with earflaps brought his deeper timbre to the classic “Suzanne” but also showed how tricky these orchestral performances can be, with Mendoza conjuring up stirring countermelodies, it was sometimes unclear when to resume a lyric. Realizing this, Mendoza would often cue the singers as he would string sections.

Porter brought more authority, and eventually a groove, to two later Cohen pieces, “If It Be Your Will” and the project’s namesake, “Here It Is,” from 2001. 

One thing Klein aimed to do was to bring more attention to Cohen’s strong late work, over earlier classics that were skipped (from “Sisters of Mercy” to “So Long,  Marianne”). 

That was the case with the selections from the husband and wife team of Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, who paired on Cohen’s “Anthem” and “Steer Your Way.” Tedeschi, appearing in a gown and without her usual guitar, approached tentatively at first, before unleashing her soulful vocals, while Trucks, sitting next to Frisell, was limited to only a couple of slide guitar solos. He began the second number, however, with a subtle and  tasty lick from the Allman Brothers Band’s “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” to pay homage to the recent passing of a mentor there, Dickey Betts. 

Ben Folds, artistic advisor of the National Symphony Orchestra, was a perfect choice to include in the salute, showing not only the meticulous construction of Cohen’s storytelling, but how it also influenced many of his own songs, starting with the scene-setting of “Famous Blue Raincoat” — (“It’s four in the morning, the end of December,” it begins, so much like Folds’ own best-known song “Brick” (“Six a.m., day after Christmas”). 

Minus piano for his segment, Folds closed the first half with the newest song of the evening, “Happens to the Heart,” a hard-hitter among the tracks pieced together for Cohen’s posthumous 2019 “Thanks for the Dance.”

Those who came because of Frisell’s appearance were finally rewarded at the start of the concluding act, when he played behind Klein’s recitation of “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” Tedeschi-Trucks returned for the favorite “Bird on a Wire,” and the saxophonist Wilkins, who added so much coloring to a number of the selections, led on the instrumental version of Cohen’s “Avalanche” that had been part of the “Here It Is” recording. 

Don Henley was likely the biggest name on the bill — he and Klein go way back, the producer having played bass on “Boys of Summer” But Henley had been a champion of later Cohen as well, bringing light to things like “Everybody Knows.”

In a suit and looking like a congressman as played by Treat Williams, Henley began with “Waiting for the Miracle.” The Texas approach of the founding member of the Eagles allowed the best use of the sometimes unheard Leisz on pedal steel guitar.

Up to then, the evening had been a wonder in production. Especially for a program taped for television there were no pauses and glitches as one performer’s short set moved smoothly to the next with only a brief introduction. In fact, the performers never spoke at all, not to say “How’s everybody doing tonight’? or even “Thank you.” That lent to the solemnity and intent of the night.

But leave it to Henley to interrupt. “Can I speak?” he said, pointing out, unnecessarily of course, how relevant Cohen’s 1992 “Democracy” still was today. Yes it is. 

He was joined by Trisha Yearwood Friday for “In My Secret Life.” A bit hesitant on that, she stepped out impressively on “Coming Back to You,” a song she had previously covered on a 1995 Cohen tribute album.

By then, hearing so many secret glories from forgotten or overlooked gems, one almost forgot Cohen’s most beloved, all-pervasive anthem that took hold worldwide since it was used in “Shrek” in 2001.

The thrilling heights of “Hallelujah” always depends on a strong, true voice, and Yearwood’s certainly rose to the occasion, joined eventually by the entire impressive cast. (The ever-underrated country singer was only slated to be part of Friday’s program, so it was a question how Saturday’s show coped without her). 

There was no word on when the telecast of the program may appear. 

Running time: Two and a half hours, with one intermission. 

Photo credit: Trisha Yearwood and Don Henley perform “In My Secret Life.” Photo by Derek Baker. 

“Here It Is: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen was performed Friday and Saturday April 26 and 27 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St NW, Washington DC. More information here


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