You Are the Light and the Way presents an interesting challenge for a writer. Twelve new songs by Canadian vocalist Alex Bird (lyrics and music) and keyboardist Ewan Farncombe (music and arrangements) consistently sound like new "songbook classics"in several places, as if Harry Connick Jr. magically composed music with Johnny Mercer. Bird, Farncombe and the Jazz Mavericks swing each tune with a refreshingly direct and honest spirit. The challenge? Writers often want to make great music sound more complicated than excellent tunes swung with power and grace.
But sometimes it really is that simple. You Are the Light and the Way is an absolute joy. Bird's voice is a strong and supple lead instrument, sometimes resounding echoes of Canada's pop vocal legend Paul Anka, and the Maverick's accompaniment moves as its mirror image, reflective and cool.
Bird's voice strolls all alone into the first verse of the opening "You Are the Light and the Way," cold and sharp as an icepick. The Mavericks slip in and pull the second verse down into a funky blue groove made up of gospel, pop, R&B, and jazz filtered through the musical colors of New Orleans, while drummer Eric West lays greasy jukejoint fatback behind the beat. "My Cutie Pie" more sharply focuses on that Crescent City sound, with West's big fat bass and drum sounds rocking its easy beat and Alexander Brown's trumpet meowing and prowling like a wet tomcat crawling in from the rain.
You Are the Light and the Way turns the spotlight not only on Bird's commanding voice but also on the Jazz Mavericks. "Tell Me It's You," which sort of glides out from under the closing curtain of the preceding "I Held You In My Arms," somehow digs deep into a throaty, romantic saxophone sound but luxuriously floats like a drifting cloud upon the rhythm section's languid tempo. "Back to You" stretches the Mavericks out the most: In the first verse, West splashes cymbals and drums to rattle dissonant and eerie saxophone moans, then the second verse drops dead into the pocket of a blues stride so cool that it burns icy hot. Brown smolders through Miles Davis' acoustic muted ballad sound in "Sittin' By My Lonesome," a beautifully hurting sound so sweet it sings like a ballad and so sad it aches like a blues.
"Old Soul" rumbles from its opening swinging big-band sound into a finger-snapping stroll which Bird's vocal seems to relish with all the finger-snapping cool of Bobby Darin or even a young Frank Sinatra.
Sometimes, it really is just that simple.
1. You Are the Light and the Way; Where the Blackbird Sings; Way Back Home; My
Cutie Pie; Sittin' By My Lonesome; Fool for Love; Thinkin' Bout You Tonight; Old Soul;
Held You in My Arms;
Tell Me It's You; Back to You; Honey Bee Lullaby.
Ewen Farncombe: piano/B3; Eric West: drums Leighton Harrell: bass; Jacob
Gorzhaltsan; tenor sax, clarinet. Guest Personnel: Alexander Brown: trumpet; Jesse
Ryan: alto sax; Patrick Smith: baritone sax; Tom Richards: trombone;
William Lamoureaux: violin; Mo M. Mitchell: violin; Andrew Chung; viola; Jill Sauerteig: