COHEN AND THE CANTOR
Zelermyer contributes to album
“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.