A short history of Leonard Cohen and jazz

In 1979, Leonard Cohen returned to the folk acoustic sounds of his earlier album with Recent Songs, which he co-produced with Henry Lewy and was released on Columbia.

The album succeeded Death of a Ladies’ Man. Released two years earlier and produced by Phil Spector, Death of a Ladies’ Man had been trashed by the critics who reputed it as an overproduced, inappropriate and chaotic mess, which completely clashed with Cohen’s downbeat nature. The odd coupling of Cohen and Spector had apparently worked well together during the month-long song-writing session but once they got to the recording studio, the paranoia of the creator of the “wall of sound” took over.

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Recent Songs was to represent a new beginning for Cohen, a return to his folk acoustic style. It was also noted by critics for its jazz and gypsy folk influences, and was warmly received. The jazz influence on Cohen’s music is not coincidental. In fact, it can be seen as an organic part of his wish to start over and as originating from the early part of his music career.

Cohen became acquainted with New York City’s Beat Generation as a Columbia University post-graduate in the late-50’s. In 1957, he attended an event at the Village during which Jack Kerouac read to improvised piano music.

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This event encouraged Cohen to do more performance work and over the next few years, he read and improvised poetry to jazz music. One of his most frequent collaborators was Maury Kaye, a jazz pianist and bandleader with whom he frequently played at a venue called Dunn’s Birdland in Montreal, Canada.

The origins of his career as a recording music artist reveals jazz influence as well. His first album, the age-defining Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), found him actively collaborating with jazz bassist Willie Ruff. The intimate sound of the album, even with the introduction of orchestration during recording, was maintained as a result of the intimate setting in which the music was first composed. Elements of this sound would be insisted upon, or expanded upon, in Cohen’s following albums.

When the Spector experimentation of Death of a Ladies’ Man failed, it was time for Cohen to look back at the things that had shaped his beginnings in music. As a result, on top of less obvious jazz influences being present and scattered all over Recent Songs, tracks like “Came So Far For Beauty” and the Sinatraesque “The Smokey Night,” may represent Cohen at his most “jazzy.”

This is a part of his musical sensibilities that really comes to the fore on this album arguably more than others but also a side that he would return to frequently over the course of his career.

Matt Micucci
Matt Micucci

Matt Micucci is the Online Editor of JAZZIZ Magazine.

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