There is a thin line between cocktail jazz and easy listening; between the atmospheric music one hears at a nightclub versus the background melodies played at a coffee shop. Van Morrison and Joey DeFrancesco’s You’re Driving Me Crazy falls in the middle. Some songs are gruff enough to be heard at a bar while others are smooth enough not to disturb one’s morning cup of mud.
However, it’s not simply a matter of the jazzier tunes are good and the more comfortable ones are bad. In fact, the opposite can be true here. Morrison knows how to coolly croon and create a laidback vibe. DeFrancesco understands how to play the organ in a seemingly effortless style that suggests a trouble-free ambiance. He also brought his band with him: Dan Wilson (guitar), Michael Ode (drums) and Troy Roberts (tenor saxophone). Sometimes the more complicated tracks seem forced and showy. The best music on the album can be found when the musicians groove together rather than challenge each other to take it the next level. This may be counter to traditional expectations, but the album succeeds most when the duo are the most ease with each other’s contributions.
This new record marks the first formal collaboration for Morrison and DeFrancesco, although individually both artists are veterans who have each released more than 30 albums over the past six decades. You’re Driving Me Crazy features a mix old American standards such as “Miss Otis Regrets”, “The Things I Used to Do”, and “Every Day I Have the Blues” with reinterpretations of Morrison’s past classics like “Have I Told You Lately”, “All Saints Day”, and “The Way Young Lovers Do”. The familiarity of these tunes allows Morrison to play around with the vocals creatively.
For example, Morrison rephrases the words to his composition “The Way Young Lovers Do” into a syncopated beat from just the second bar implying a connection between improvisation and the infatuation of romance. Not long after DeFrancesco takes a long organ solo as if he was the other half of the loving couple. While his fingers glide over the keys with speed, the playing is almost luxurious resembling the intensity of a kiss. When Morrison comes back in, he lets his tongue trip over the words and eventually starts to scat as if mere words cannot contain the feelings within. It’s a neat trick that serves the song well.
While Morrison’s tune “Close Enough for Jazz” was first released back in 1993 on the album Too Long in Exile, its appearance here fits in thematically with the other tracks. According to the lyrics, being sad or angry serves no purpose. Even if one has problems, with the right attitude, one can still enjoy life and have a good time. Morrison, DeFrancesco and his band keep things light. The song ends with Morrison ululating a riff and then laughing at the strangeness of his vocal expression as the instrumentals fade out. He’s having fun and it’s contagious.
There are bluesy numbers, including Titus Turner’s “Sticks and Stones”, made popular by Ray Charles. These save the record from getting too cute and allow DeFrancesco and his band show off their chops. When Morrison as protagonist shouts “I’ve Been Abused”, you know he’s only playing a role. The same is true for the more straightforward “Every Day I Have the Blues”. Morrison comes off more as an actor than a man steeped in bad luck and trouble. The best parts of the cut are its instrumental portions.
As such, You’re Driving Me Crazy is somewhat of a mixed bag. Morrison and DeFrancesco are old pros who know how to deliver the goods. The album has many charms that will enthrall old fans and attract new ones. It may be “Close Enough for Jazz”, which as Morrison points out, means finding the good in life and celebrating it for one’s own good. That wisdom is its own reward.