Bossa Nova Buddies: JUNO Nominees Alex Bird, Ewen Farncombe & Cheo Turn Chance Meeting Into 'Papaya'"

Stop us if you've heard this one before: Two Toronto jazzmen and a Brooklyn DJ walk into a bar. And when they all walk out, they've written the slap of the summer.

Okay, that's a bit of an oversimplification. But it's still a good thumbnail for how we got "Papaya, " the intoxicating first collaboration between Canadian national treasures of jazz Alex Bird and Ewen Farncombe and Venezuelan-born, New York-based Latin-dance giant Cheo. And boy, is their story a case of being in the right place at the right time.

It all went down when Cheo arrived early for a DJ gig at Toronto's Rivoli and decided to see who was playing at the nearby Cameron House. That turned out to be the celebrated Alex Bird and the Jazz Mavericks, featuring Bird on vocals and Farncombe on piano. Taken by what he heard, Cheo began corresponding with Bird—and before long, the three of them had written an exciting set of tunes that played to all their strengths while carving out something vibrant and distinctive in its own right.

Appropriately enough, the first fruit of their alliance we're getting to sample is "Papaya, " which may have its roots in a chance meeting in Ontario but evokes the spirit of NYC's famed Copacabana club in 1968. With the multi-talented Cheo on guitar and Farncombe on Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer, the track keeps up a head-bobbing, hip-swaying lilt while Bird brings pitch-perfect period enunciation to the imagery of a "dance they do/ Gettin' way down low/ With a Bossa Beat/ Swinging to and fro." And whoever "they" might be, they certainly seem to be having themselves a time:

Well, they wave their hands
And they flip their hair
Without a care
Goin' with the flow

Bird and Farncombe brought in their fellow Maverick Jacob Gorzhaltsan to provide tenor sax and flute. While they were all ready, they put down a full EP, the forthcoming Casanova, Bossa Nova, Lover Man. One of the most hotly anticipated releases of summer '24, the record teams "Papaya" with three more songs: the title track, "All the Way Tonight" and "Lullaby for Dreaming." The latter two were brought to the table by Cheo and then had their lyrics translated into English by Bird; the other half are Bird/Farncombe compositions with words by Bird and Cheo.

What you'll hear is the dynamic synthesis of some seriously formidable pedigrees. Undisputed masters of modern vocal jazz, Bird and Farncombe have been nominated for two JUNOs—first with the Mavericks for 2021's You Are the Light and the Way and more recently in the 2024 Vocal Jazz Album of the Year category for their duo recording, Songwriter. The grateful recipients of support from the Canada Council for the Arts, they also penned the country's official Thanksgiving anthem, "The Sweetest Moments." In their various configurations, they're a top draw on club and concert stages across the country.

Cheo, meanwhile, has won one Latin Grammy and been nominated for another 10, in recognition of his far-ranging skills as a guitarist, songwriter, DJ and producer. Over the course of nearly three decades, he's woven his name tightly into the fabric of Latin music—first in his native Caracas and later in his adopted home of New York, where he performs extensively as both a solo artist and a member of numerous popular bands, including his own dance/funk outfit, Los Amigos Invisibles. He's a vigorous collaborator whose partnership with Neil Ochoa and Alvaro Benavidez as Los Crema Paraiso yielded the 2015 album De película, later named one of the 10 best of the year by NPR. During the pandemic, his weekend DJ sets "Casaecheo" and "Bajo Perfil" were streamed to over 20, 000 live viewers.

Now these highly accomplished boundary-breakers have come together to introduce us to what they call "bossa nova for the 21st century." Based on their past triumphs and the tantalizing groove laid down on "Papaya, " they're clearly on to something. Aren't you glad Cheo didn't stop into a pizza joint instead?

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