Steve Haines’ goal with his latest release was to wrap an orchestra around vocalist Becca Stevens and soprano saxophonist Chad Eby “like a warm blanket.” Along with his own double bass and a conductor, he enlisted 38 musicians for the project. The Third Floor Orchestra pulls off this herculean task, creating textures that sound rich but not heavy, a striking backdrop for exchanges of vocals and thoughtful saxophone breaks. The one instrumental, Chopin’s “Mazurka Op. 17, No. 4,” which also features pianist Joey Calderazzo, nearly revitalizes the idea of Third Stream music.
The rest of the album doesn’t quite have the same caliber as the arrangements. For material, Haines supplemented a couple of originals and two by Stevens with work by songwriters who, like him, were born in Canada. Recasting Neil Young’s wistful “Harvest Moon” as a big-band ballad speaks to the original’s flexibility and Haines’ skill. But Stevens’ impeccable articulation dispenses with the raw charm that made Young’s warble so meaningful in the first place. Her delivery renders a similar effect on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a decent song that gets covered way too often in the name of instant drama. Stevens has a strong voice, but her crisp performance sounds better suited to a Broadway arrangement than the work of a complex folksinger.
The most egregious selection closes the album. Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” might not have been one of the better hits of the singer/songwriter era, but at least its author conveyed the lyrics with a sense of longing. This version turns it into a bright showtune, replete with a dramatic swell from the orchestra in the climax that would be at home in Wicked. At least they didn’t take a crack at “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”