Megan Birdsall has long been a Kansas City jazz darling, her slight presence a contradiction to the voice that's filled the corners of almost every jazz club in town. But to peg her in such a niche would be a mistake, as she and her band Mbird prove with their new release, MercyFlight.
The first of four albums Birdsall is set to produce with Nashville-based Jack Sundrud (a member of Poco, whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Kenny Rogers and the Judds), MercyFlight tends towards jazz-influenced folk rock.
Birdsall began to expand and fine-tune her songwriting abilities while recovering from extensive throat surgery. She then moved to Nashville to work with Sundrud and began explore her career and inspiration beyond jazz.
It’s no surprise that the record is beautifully sung. Birdsall intelligently writes melodies that allow ample exploration for her bright, clear voice, with broad ranges and grace notes that are quick yet bold and deliberate. Even in a tempo that's considerably faster than traditional jazz, Birdsall maintains the same soul-tugging tone she’s always possessed: Her soprano stays rich and unwavering, which isn’t always easy, and when she harmonizes with herself on “Up in the Air,” it’s a vocal one-two punch.
And her lyrics can be haunting with their insinuations. “So here's the notes I kept with me/Everybody lift a glass of kerosene/My eyes were already burning,” she sings in “Head in the Ground,” a mournful and nostalgic ballad that ramps up into an anthem, arousing a gut-level feeling of struggling through to the other side. “Why can't I make it out?/It feels like I'm finally losing it,” she cries in the jazzy corrido “So Blue.” Most striking is the bitter “Outside,” in which she calls out to someone she loves who has left her: “What would you have me do/You know my hands are tied/I'm still waiting outside for you.”
Each song is full of vivid imagery as stories subtly evolve from one song to the other. Despite the folky lyrics, however, Birdsall and her band remain jazz musicians at heart.
On guitar, Michael Smith slings riffs and key changes to match Birdsall's euphonious scales. Ben Leifer’s strong, diverse bass lines provide a soothing foundation through the changing emotions of the album, while Matt Leifer delivers the drum fills and the extra percussive trills for which we all love jazz drummers. As a result, genres blend intriguingly into a cohesive exploration of perspectives through vocals and lyrics.
And because these are true jazz musicians, the album is only available on vinyl for the moment, which encourages the tactile experience jazzheads tend to savor.
Mbird's Mercy Flight is a worthy reinvention, bringing an entirely new facet to Birdsall's already estimable career. While she may have lost her voice temporarily, Birdsall's album is a testament to the difficulties that one can overcome, physically and emotionally. It's a reminder that, as Frida Kahlo once said, “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”
Monique Gabrielle Salazar is a Kansas City freelance writer, artist and producer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.