CO­HEN AND THE CAN­TOR

Zel­ermyer con­trib­utes to al­bum

Montreal Gazette - - Front Page - BILL BROWN­STEIN bbrown­stein@post­media.com twit­ter.com/ bill­brown­stein

“If you are the dealer I’m out of the game If you are the healer I’m bro­ken and lame If thine is the glory Then mine must be the shame You want it darker We kill the flame” These open­ing lines to You Want It Darker, the first track on Leonard Co­hen’s new al­bum of the same ti­tle, pretty much sum up the theme to his 14th disc. The al­bum is a haunt­ing, serene and pow­er­fully evoca­tive ac­count of a man com­ing to terms with his ex­is­tence.

The sin­gle You Want It Darker comes out on Wed­nes­day, which just hap­pens to be Mon­tre­al­born Co­hen’s 82nd birth­day. The en­tire al­bum, writ­ten by Co­hen and pro­duced by his son Adam, will be re­leased Oct. 21.

There is no ques­tion­ing the strong spir­i­tual con­tent on the open­ing track of You Want It Darker. Not with this cho­rus: “Hi­neni Hi­neni; I’m ready, my Lord.”

The voice be­hind that op­er­at­i­clike ren­der­ing of the cho­rus be­longs to tenor supreme Gideon Zel­ermyer, can­tor of Mon­treal’s Shaar Hashomayim Sy­n­a­gogue. Zel­ermyer and the Shaar choir also pro­vide back­ground vo­cals on an­other track, It Seemed the Bet­ter Way.

“Hi­neni lit­er­ally means here I am,” said Zel­ermyer, 40, in his Shaar of­fice. “I’m too young to know ev­ery­thing about Leonard, but I know he does not use words with­out pur­pose.

“Hi­neni has one ma­jor ref­er­ence back to the Old Tes­ta­ment, re­lat­ing to Abra­ham in God pre­vent­ing him from sac­ri­fic­ing his son Isaac. But in this case, I think hi­neni is more a ref­er­ence to Leonard as some­one try­ing to come to an un­der­stand­ing with God, some­one reck­on­ing with fi­nal tal­lies in the Book of Life: Here I am — I am ready.”

Zel­ermyer doesn’t want to spec­u­late, but Co­hen has been ru­moured to be ail­ing, which might ex­plain the tone of the al­bum.

Cu­ri­ously, while Zel­ermyer and Co­hen have been cor­re­spond­ing reg­u­larly over the last decade, they have never met in per­son. Nor have they com­mu­ni­cated by phone. Co­hen recorded his vo­cals for the al­bum in L.A., while Zel­ermyer did his in a stu­dio in Mon­treal.

In a re­quest for his thoughts on Zel­ermyer’s con­tri­bu­tions on the al­bum, Co­hen passed this along to the Mon­treal Gazette via an email: “These beau­ti­ful har­monies have been echo­ing in my mind since child­hood. I am deeply grate­ful to Gideon and the Shaar choir for lend­ing their great gifts to my songs.”

“Adam (Co­hen) over­saw all, and was amaz­ing in this process,” said Zel­ermyer, who has five can­to­rial CDs to his credit. “He has his fa­ther’s gift of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the way he was able to ex­plain his fa­ther’s mind­set to me and the choir.”

Born in Prov­i­dence, R.I., Zel­ermyer moved to Mon­treal in 2001 and has been the Shaar can­tor for the last 13 years.

“When you move to Mon­treal, you learn a num­ber of things very quickly. First is that Mon­treal bagels are the best. Sec­ond is that the Cana­di­ens are the great­est hockey fran­chise ever . ... And, third, for many an­glo­phones and fran­co­phones, all things artis­tic be­gin and end with Leonard Co­hen — with re­spect to mae­stro Nagano, who is a more re­cent ar­rival.”

Zel­ermyer had long been a fan of Co­hen be­fore mov­ing here. And he has learned to love the Habs — af­ter his for­mer favourite team the Hartford Whalers left New Eng­land. In fact, Zel­ermyer has belted both the Cana­dian and U.S. na­tional an­thems for the Habs at the Bell Cen­tre and at the Sta­ples Cen­tre, home of the L.A. Kings.

Zel­ermyer is also a diehard Bos­ton Red Sox fan, as the posters, pic­tures and au­to­graphed balls in his of­fice would in­di­cate, and he has sung both an­thems for the team, play­ing the Blue Jays, at Bos­ton’s Fen­way Park.

The con­nec­tion be­tween Co­hen and Zel­ermyer be­gan when the singer-writer’s aunt gave Zel­ermyer Co­hen’s email ad­dress.

“She told me he ad­mired the can­to­rial record­ings I had done,” Zel­ermyer re­called.

“So I would write him emails wish­ing him a happy New Year and a happy Passover, and he would al­ways write back . ... He al­ways had nice things to say about my CDs I sent him. And he signed all his emails to me: ‘Fra­ter­nally, Eliezer,’ his He­brew name.”

Last Novem­ber, Co­hen sent Zel­ermyer an email out of the blue: “Would you be in­ter­ested in col­lab­o­rat­ing with me on a new record? I’m look­ing for the sound of the sy­n­a­gogue can­tor and choir of my youth. Let me know what you think. Fra­ter­nally, Eliezer.”

“I get this email at 2:45 in the morn­ing and start scream­ing holy (ex­ple­tive) at the top of my lungs. I wake up my wife, who asks what’s wrong. I was numb. But I wrote back to Leonard with two re­sponses: ‘Hal­lelu­jah and I’m Your Man!’”

Their emails went back and forth, and within a day, Zel­ermyer was in touch with Adam to pro­ceed. Within three weeks, Adam, Zel­ermyer and the Shaar choir were in a Plateau stu­dio to­gether.

“Leonard sent me a track, just with his voice and a pi­ano in the back­ground. His­tor­i­cally, he has al­ways used fe­male backup singers, but now he was look­ing for a darker sonor­ity from an all-male choir. So Shaar mu­sic di­rec­tor Roî Azoulay and I put to­gether an ar­range­ment.

“Record­ing that night was the most ar­che­typal Mon­treal ex­pe­ri­ence I’ve ever had. Meet­ing Adam on the Main, then go­ing with him to Leonard’s house on the Plateau, then record­ing in the stu­dio till 2 in the morn­ing. That was like walk­ing into the holy of holies. I was so elated, but I told Adam that his fa­ther could get this kind of singing from any­one, so why was he com­ing to me.

“Adam sim­ply said: ‘Be­cause the Shaar means a lot to Leonard.’”

It turns out that Co­hen’s his­tory with the Shaar goes far back. He had his bar mitz­vah there, and his grand­fa­ther and great-grand­fa­ther were pres­i­dents of the con­gre­ga­tion. There are por­traits of the two hang­ing in the Shaar hall­way.

Though Co­hen had spent much of the 1990s at a Zen Bud­dhist re­treat in Cal­i­for­nia, Zel­ermyer has no doubt about his com­mit­ment to his Jewish roots.

“I think that Leonard, like a lot of peo­ple, has been on a spir­i­tual search for much of his life,” Zel­ermyer said. “And while I think he has found mean­ing in Bud­dhist phi­los­o­phy, he never shied away from his Jewish iden­tity.”

There will be a record launch in Los An­ge­les next month, and Zel­ermyer hopes he’ll fi­nally have the op­por­tu­nity to meet Co­hen in the flesh. If not, Zel­ermyer does have one last­ing memento of their col­lab­o­ra­tion — a self-por­trait draw­ing of Co­hen with this in­scrip­tion: “For Gideon, with love and grat­i­tude, for all your help and your beau­ti­ful voice, Leonard.”

The draw­ing sits in the most hal­lowed po­si­tion pos­si­ble in Zel­ermyer’s of­fice, right next to a team photo of the Red Sox cel­e­brat­ing a World Se­ries win.

In his younger years, Zel­ermyer sought to fol­low in his fa­ther’s foot­steps and be­come a rabbi. But, ul­ti­mately, it was his love of singing that dic­tated his fu­ture.

“There is a joke in my fam­ily: My fa­ther is a rabbi, my mother is an opera-lover, and if you cross the two, you get a can­tor,” mused Zel­ermyer, who has two young sons with his Mon­treal-born wife Michelle.

Since tak­ing over as Shaar can­tor, Zel­ermyer has sung at many other venues around the city and con­ti­nent. Zel­ermyer and the Shaar choir sang in the United Na­tions Gen­eral Assem­bly last Jan­uary. Zel­ermyer will also be the soloist in a spring Mon­treal Sym­phony Orches­tra con­cert of Men­delssohn’s Elijah, con­ducted by his buddy Kent Nagano, at the Shaar.

“Be­ing a can­tor is like be­ing a jazz mu­si­cian,” Zel­ermyer re­flected. “You have a mode, but as you be­come more skilled, you can im­pro­vise on that mode. That’s what I did on You Want It Darker. I im­pro­vised and tried to make it sound more can­to­rial. And that’s what I do at sy­n­a­gogue.

“But it’s al­ways a chal­lenge. Much of my life is spent in front of peo­ple who don’t speak the lan­guage I’m singing in, and yet I have to touch them.”

That he does, and not just with the non-sec­u­lar, ei­ther.

In the words of one wise man, no one ever leaves a sy­n­a­gogue hum­ming the ser­mon.

PHOTOS: JOHN KEN­NEY

Gideon Zel­ermyer, can­tor at Shaar Hashomayim Sy­n­a­gogue in Westmount, has been cor­re­spond­ing reg­u­larly with Leonard Co­hen over the last decade, though they have never met in per­son or com­mu­ni­cated by phone. Co­hen recorded his vo­cals for his new disc in L.A., while Zel­ermyer did his in a stu­dio in Mon­treal.

A draw­ing given to can­tor Gideon Zel­ermyer.

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