On a Clear Day, you can hear forever


Jazz has never been the taste of the timid.  It’s a gauntlet thrown down for the bold.  More than any other form of music, jazz demands a degree of commitment, an implicit contract between song and listener.  Jazz extends you an invitation to wander through its complex depths, brain fully engaged, to discover the notes that will move your heart.  The most learned fans of jazz will always emphasize this idea of the journey.  They’ll name-check greats like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, but they’ll tell you with a gleam in their eye that the greatest jazz they ever heard was played by an unknown 75-year-old trumpeter they stumbled upon in a dive bar in Kansas City in 1978.  So too is jazz a journey for the performers who recognize this drive at the soul of it to go, to seek the best of it out in remote corners.  Emilie-Claire Barlow, an award-winning Canadian singer with ten albums under her belt, knew her newest release Clear Day needed to embrace the quest beckoning at the core of jazz.  On the opening instrumental track “Amundsen,” she whispers enticingly in French, “all things are possible” – and sets about taking us on a journey that proves it.

Barlow has always been an artist with the ability to reach into songs across different genres and with affectionate fingers, draw out the jazz you never knew was hiding inside.  Clear Day offers a broad canvas on which she can play – a map of the world, if you will – from classic Tin Pan Alley numbers to Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, the Beatles and Queen and even a French interpretation of a traditional song from Mexican folklore for good measure.  Far from settling for a release of glorified karaoke cuts, however, Barlow deconstructs each song down to its basic elements and rebuilds it into a brand new confection, offering a teasing taste of the familiar to settle you into your seat before the inventive arrangements blast you out of it.  The title track opens with a movie-esque swell of strings and brass, like an eager, applauding audience waiting for the curtain to rise and the star to assume her place.  What follows are songs you know but yet don’t:  the early eighties groove of “Under Pressure” is here, but without the bass riff later made infamous by Vanilla Ice.  So is “Fix You,” retaining the comforting core of the lyrics but shedding the histrionic treacle that unbalanced Coldplay’s original.

Tossing the script like that might be a concern if entrusted to a vocalist of lesser chops, but Barlow, backed this time by both her regular supporting combo players and the 52-member Netherlands-based Metropole Orkest, is more than up to the challenge.  She takes a spotlit center stage with her often dizzying, always compelling aural acrobatics.  Her voice can be by turns searing, sweet, aching, dreamy or white-hot sexy, while never succumbing to the nasty American Idol habit of cranking things past 11 on every single track to transfix wandering attentions.  Her vocal runs are remarkable not only for their range but their restraint.  A great performer never shows you her top, because then the audience will realize she has nowhere else to go.  Emilie-Claire Barlow knows this, and as a result her work is one of constant surprise.  Accordingly, Clear Day is not an album to throw on in the background to score empty dinner conversation, lest you miss something special.  It makes you comb through its reaches for the treasure awaiting the diligent.  And there’s a lot of treasure lurking here.

Barlow has the ability, on every song, to welcome you along as a passenger on the intimate journey that is jazz, beginning with her wistful echoes of the Arctic circle in “Amundsen,” as if you were an old friend from the trenches.  When she takes on the persona of the lonely, longing songstress whispering her pain to the deaf ears of the closing-time crowd in “Unrequited,” you can immediately imagine yourself nursing a scotch in the front row.  When she kicks down the cobblestones on a sunny Sunday morning in “Feelin’ Groovy,” you’re smiling and tipping your cap as you watch this vivacious bubble of energy saunter by.  When she transforms into the widow in flowing black silks by the river weeping for her lost children in the haunting, rending “La Llorona,” you’re reaching out to console her.  But never one to bid her audience goodbye on a downhearted note, Barlow instead dances you out with a sprightly spring in her step in the lively, conga-driven “Mineiro de Coração.”  You feel, as the final notes spiral into the dark and you part ways, that you’ve walked the world together to a jazz-flavored beat, and you’re more than eager to rewind to track 1 and make the voyage again.  This is Barlow’s most accomplished and most mature album, and while one would never suggest she wasn’t terrific before, Clear Day is a confident climb up to the next level.  She writes on the album’s liner notes that Clear Day was inspired by her personal journey over the last four years, and we are reminded that the best art is that which dares to dig deep and to embrace any scars accumulated on the way.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing Emilie-Claire Barlow perform live a couple of times, and I’m often left perplexed as to why someone with such formidable talent isn’t selling out stadiums instead of the Auto-Tuned pop princess du jour.  Perhaps it goes back to the notion that jazz is something that you have to search out, rather than have it served to you passively with ad nauseum airplay on mainstream radio.  Clear Day is that glittering jewel of an example where you don’t have to journey too far to find it.  Rather, the journey is in the experience of the album itself, a vast menu of worldly delights that makes its asks of you but, for your trouble, supplies sumptuous rewards.  Pick it up, listen well, and share it with the next person who asks about the last time you heard some great jazz.

Clear Day is available online and in music stores now.

Painting with notes: Emilie-Claire Barlow live

Emilie-Claire Barlow.

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.

Brandi Disterheft.

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.