Festival Review: Nice Jazz Festival

Leonard Cohen brings his hits to southern France.

Leonard Cohen 3 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy of Guillaume Laurent/glaurent.net)
Leonard Cohen 3 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy of Guillaume Laurent/glaurent.net)
Nice Jazz Festival July 16-26 Cimiez, France Just weeks after producer Marcel Avraham's plans to hire Leonard Cohen for a Ramat Gan appearance were announced as officially not coming to fruition, the 73-year-old performer skipped his way onstage at the 60th Nice Jazz Festival. Other than audibly joking to his band that he was having trouble reading the set list without his glasses, he showed no signs of diminished powers. When an entertainer comes out of semi-retirement to play over 80 gigs in efforts to recover $5 million reportedly pilfered by a former manager, it's sure to raise eyebrows. But the suburban Montreal-raised poet-novelist-singer-songwriter-charmer has always brought his verses to willing audiences out of material burdens rather than spiritual ones; after spending extended periods of his life in places like the sleepy Greek island of Hydra, the Manhattan artists' incubator of the Chelsea Hotel and the California Zen retreat of Mt. Baldy, he's come back into the world only when he felt his wallet getting thin. As he wrote in 1974's Field Commander Cohen, its title perhaps a nod to his experiences playing for IDF troops the previous fall, "I never asked but I heard that you cast your lot along with the poor; that you be this and nothing more than just some grateful, faithful woman's favorite singing millionaire, the patron saint of envy and the grocer of despair, working for the Yankee dollar." In southern France, Cohen's groceries of despair were gobbled up. He wowed the international audience with a Nice-customized verse of "Hallelujah," an acoustic version of the High Holiday liturgy-inspired "Who by Fire" and plenty of other favorites spanning his career. The festival grounds were packed with fans who sang along in awe, Cohen pausing at one point to warn a young lady who had climbed up one of the park's olive trees to be careful. In Europe, jazz festivals are often wide in scope, and Leonard Cohen's show was well-suited for French audiences, his late-Sixties dreamy folk sound having long since evolved into a sort of post-country cabaret. Another member of the Jewish priestly tribe, Avishai Cohen - the Judean Hills' most accomplished jazz export - played at the opening night of the festival as his Gently Disturbed trio tour continues around the world. Paris-born, Ramat Hasharon-raised songstress Yael Naim also made an acclaimed appearance. The three-stage, eight-night festival, located adjacent to a Franciscan monastery, the Henri Matisse Museum and Roman ruins, drew some 41,000 people to 48 performances by local acts as well as big names like Rufus Wainwright, George Benson, Diana Krall, Maceo Parker, John Mayall and Joan Baez. With its punchy horn section, throbbing dance rhythms and scratch-happy DJ, French party orchestra Hocus Pocus evoked Israeli export acts like The Apples and Balkan Beat Box. And Beirut-born Ibrahim Maalouf purveyed Middle Eastern grooves topped by trumpet solos instead of oud-picked ones.