cover art by Leonard Cohen

cover art by Leonard Cohen

My first introduction to Sharon Robinson’s music was at Leonard Cohen’s amazing performance at the Wang Theatre a few weeks ago. He had brought with him a stellar collection of musicians, each one fascinating in their own right. Sharon, I learned, is not just a gifted vocalist, but has collaborated with Mr. Cohen for many years, and has written quite a few songs with him, including one of my all-time favorites, “Everybody Knows”. She, along with the Webb Sisters, contributed lovely backup vocals, and she did an amazing solo performance of “Boogie Street”, to enthusiastic cheers from the audience.

Her vocals on her debut album are quiet and subdued, like a simmering tea kettle. One has the sense that at any moment, she could let loose in a major hellfire way. One disappointment, I’d say, is that she doesn’t. Her voice is beautiful, but she plays it conservatively, as does the band, which I realize is probably the style of what is known as smooth jazz, and which I’m sure will appeal to lovers of that genre. In all honestly, it’s not the type of music I listen to very often, and I don’t have a real feeling for it. Which doesn’t make me the person best suited to write about this recording, so I’ll just speak to the individual talents contained within. Sharon’s luscious voice is front and center, as it should be, flowing like warm honey. Accompanying her, all highly skilled musicians, from Christopher Bruce on guitar to Jay Bellerose on drums and percussion; Patrick Warren, synthesizers and Joey Waronker, percussion; and Nate Wood, additional drums, guitar and keyboards. James Harrah, Mike Turk, Bob Glaub and Michael Gold add guitar, harmonica, bass, and vocals on individual tracks. From all corners I could imagine enticing riffs bubbling up from the rich musical pool, but as is par for the course with this style of music, I suppose, it just doesn’t happen to the degree that I keep hoping it might. Production is impeccable and the sound is very smooth and polished; perhaps too much so. Personal preference, but when I hear raw talent like Sharon Robinson’s, I like it to stay raw, with as little production as possible.

Sharon’s solo songwriting ability stands out on the tracks “Party for the Lonely” and “The High Road” (the latter of which was performed by Bettye LaVette on her album “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise”). The three songs co-written with Leonard Cohen are, of course, brilliant. “Everybody Knows” is quite simply one of the most amazing songs ever written. “Alexandra Leaving”… lyrically haunting, and I’d love to hear this with the barest of accompaniment; solo piano or guitar, preferably. On “Summertime”, there’s a wistful melancholy, a quietly simmering passion which she inhabits. The best version I’ve heard is one performed with the wonderfully talented Javiar Mas on guitar on TV Finland’s morning program back in October 2008.

My hope for her next album is one that is stripped down with a more minimalist production. Possibly combining solo accompaniment from Javiar Mas with some larger bluesy R&B arrangements that she can sensuously weave around and occasionally let loose on. That would be a glorious thing indeed.

Sharon Robinson’s shiver-producing performance with Leonard Cohen on “Boogie Street” (from the “Live In London” DVD)

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