“Who By Fire. .” : Leonard Cohen Meets Sonny Rollins

I have been meaning to talk about this clip for a while now and it seems appropriate to do so on Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement and the holiest days in the Jewish calendar.

For two seasons (1989 – 1990), the t.v. show Sunday Night (later called Michelob Presents Night Music) presented some of the coolest music ever on television. The show was put together by Hal Wilner and featured an eclectic group of artists who would often perform together, making for some unique and interesting collaborations. To me, one of the highlights was when singer/songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen, backed up by the band Was (Not Was) with jazz great Sonny Rollins on tenor sax, performed the Cohen song, Who By Fire.

The melody for “Who By Fire” is based on the Hebrew for the prayer “Unetanneh Tokef” which is sung at Yom Kippur services. To quote Leonard Cohen himself:
That song derives very directly from a Hebrew prayer that is sung on the Day of Atonement, or the evening of the Day of the Atonement:(? Hebrew) Who by fire, who by sword, who by water? According to the tradition, the Book of Life is opened and in it is inscribed all those who will live and all those who will die for the following year. And in that prayer is catalogued all the various ways in which you can quit this veil of tears. The melody is if not actually stolen, is certainly derived from the melody that I heard in the synagogue as a boy.But of course, the conclusion of the song, as I write it, is somewhat different: “Who shall I say is calling?” Well, that is what makes the song into a prayer for me in my terms, which is who is it or what is it that determine who will live and who will die ? What is the source of this great furnace of creation ? Who lights it ? Who extinguishes it ?” from the Harry Rasky’s film “The Song of Leonard Cohen” (later fully reported in his book “The Song Of L. Cohen, Portrait Of A Poet, A Friendship And A Film”)

The performance opens with a tenor sax solo cadenza by Sonny before the full band enters and starts the song proper. The backup is tastefully understated except during the refrain where the backup singers add an interesting gospel touch. However, the song reaches transcendence with Sonny Rollins’ two chorus long sax solo. I remember the hair on the back of my neck standing up when I first saw it that Sunday night many years ago and it still amazes me when I listen to it today. It reminds me of the blowing of the shofar (an instrument made from a rams’s horn) at the end of the Yom Kippur services. It all ties into the spiritual nature of music, connecting a Jewish prayer, a Canadian singer/songwriter, a rock band from Detroit and an American jazz legend.

Leonard Cohen, Sonny Rollins and Was (Not Was) – Who By Fire

It was one of those moments when you have seen/heard something that just totally blows you away. When you witness something that you know will stay with you forever.

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Posted in Music Appreciation and Analysis
2 comments on ““Who By Fire. .” : Leonard Cohen Meets Sonny Rollins
  1. Scott says:

    A very nice appreciation – I had the same reaction when I was lucky enough to hear the original broadcast,and still do when listen to it now. However, one caveat – that is definitely NOT Was Not Was backing up the performance (except for the male backing vocalists). Marcus Miller is on bass, Robin Ford on guitar, not sure about the percussionists. And of course David Sanborn on Alto, which he had the good taste not to play in Sonny Rollins’ presence.

    • RoyMusicUSA says:

      I stand corrected. The backing band was not Was Not Was but was comprised primarily of the Night Music house band, supplemented by the Was Not Was vocalist along w/ background vocalists from (I’m guessing)Leonard Cohen’s band, and of course, Sonny. However, the bassist was Tom Barney not Marcus Miller. Thanks so much for reading my blog.

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