Jazz is probably the only form of music that is equal parts sexy and frustrating; like a beautiful woman in a smoke-draped bar who slips you her phone number on a napkin, only for you to discover that it’s written in an encrypted quantum algorithm. Emilie-Claire Barlow has the former aspect nailed, with a voice at home in both swinging English and seductive French that can run like the sleekest saxophone. As for the frustrating part, not a problem – she retains the freshness of the improvisational nature of jazz, but applies a bottomless bag of tricks to an open and accessible package. Two magnificent hours at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts this past Friday exemplify her appeal. A striking presence, strutting confidently about the stage in a sleek silver mini-dress amidst her all-male backing band, she defies the expectation that someone so good-looking and talented should be an unapproachable diva. Despite legs that go all the way to the floor (thanks Aaron Sorkin for the metaphor), she’s a supermodel you somehow don’t feel quite so intimidated about walking up to greet. She deserves to be much more famous than she is – worthy of the echelon of Michael Bublé – but hopefully time and more great albums and performances will take care of that. Indeed, one all-too-brief night in the company of her voice is enough to get you hooked.
It’s struck me how similar jazz is to painting, and it’s no coincidence that many of the greatest jazz performers, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett included, were also painters. If you think of both arts as the careful application of individual colors towards a composite whole, then you have a fairly good sense of how the comparison fits. On The Beat Goes On, her album of covers of 60’s rock and folk songs that was the centerpiece of Friday’s performance, Barlow has done far more than pour old wine in new bottles, she’s splashed it against her own unique canvas. She has reinvigorated tired, cheesy karaoke favorites like “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” and “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”, playing around with time signatures and tempos and layered them with her breezy intonations, turning them into new creations that would feel right at home at the Bourbon Street Bar around two in the morning. The title track is a surprising new take on the Sonny and Cher attempt at Dylanesque relevance (that felt dated when it first dropped with goofy lyrics like “Electrically they keep a baseball score”), which hums along crisply before revealing its greatest treasure – that it’s a mashup with Quincy Jones’ danceable “Soul Bossa Nova” (better known as Austin Powers’ theme, or, if you’re a Canadian of the right age, the theme to the gameshow Definition). Barlow strolls through these songs with ease, but is equally at home with musical standards like “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, haunting ballads like “So Many Stars” or her Piaf-conjuring French-language take on “Dream a Little Dream,” just a few of the other selections from earlier albums she dazzled Friday’s audience with.
Barlow’s opening act, jazz bassist and singer Brandi Disterheft, is an intriguing performer in her own right, her tiny fingers dancing across the strings of a massive instrument she can barely lift and drawing out a rush of incredible sound. Disterheft’s music veers more toward the make-it-up-as-you-go, hipster style of jazz, but there’s so much raw talent there you’re happy to come along for the ride, even if you don’t quite understand where you’re going or the what the deal is with the scenery flying by. She had the crowd enraptured merely in two brief numbers to kick off the evening, with a style and presence all her own – if Emilie-Claire Barlow is the traditional sultry jazz siren, Brandi Disterheft is Tinkerbell, her practiced ease with her craft making it seem as though the notes that spring forth are indeed the result of pixie magic.
Speaking of the crowd, one cannot forget to mention their giddiness at hearing Barlow’s closing encore – the Brazilian ditty “O Pato (The Duck).” Barlow confessed to us after the show that she had dropped it from her setlist for a time but found audiences were asking for it back; indeed, a few “quackers” on Friday were quite insistent on hearing it, sparking many giggles from the enchanting songstress during her stage banter. If you haven’t heard it, it’s a funny number about a duck who loves to dance the samba and gets his friends the goose and swan to join in – three and a half minutes of unadulterated, swinging joy. In a way it’s fitting that it has inadvertently become something of a signature song for her, as it sums up her style, this strange, alluring combination of sex appeal and approachable goofiness that is still jazz through and through. That she’s able to slice off the frustrating aspect and make amazing sounds for the masses is nothing but a credit to how good she is. Because all the talent in the world is useless if no one gets it.