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.

Woohoo! 2012 in review!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; etcetera, etcetera.  Thanks to the WordPress helper monkeys for providing this handy little summary.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 28,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 6 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

On a personal note, I want to thank everyone who stopped by to read my ramblings, whether you came here accidentally in search of naked pictures of Carice van Houten (a very popular search engine hit, and sorry to disappoint – although you should follow her on Twitter, she’s funny), you decided to browse further because of my contributions to The Huffington Post, or you’re a personal acquaintance and you feel obligated out of guilt to click that link that shows up in your Facebook news feed.  A special thank you to Justin Trudeau and Emilie-Claire Barlow for using their celebrity clout to send more than a few readers my way.  A very special thank you to the Fabulous Five (you wonderful folks know who you are) and three in particular for proving that friendship in the digital age doesn’t require face-to-face meetings, although some day it sure would be nice to shake your hand and buy you a drink.  Who knows, maybe 2013 will offer up that chance.  An extra special thank you to my father-in-law, whose comments have done much to bolster my confidence, and who’s unfortunately spending New Year’s Eve in the ER.  Faigh go maith go luath, Dave.  Copious thanks to his daughter, my better half, without whom this wild and unpredictable enterprise never would have begun.

As I look to “lucky” 2013, I look forward to a year of chances taken, opportunities seized, fortunes made, friendships solidified and most importantly, words written.  Hope everyone out there has a very happy New Year.  As one of my favorite singers, Richard Ashcroft, once opined, see you in the next one, have a good time.

The clown princess sings the blues: Dee Dee Bridgewater live

Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Jazz can be too serious.  Images of the angry Charles Mingus, the intellectual Charlie Parker and the humorless Miles Davis haunt the genre.  The blues themselves draw their name from the stories of heartbreak and misery along the Mississippi in turn of the century America.  And there is perhaps no greater jazz tragedy than the too early passing of Billie Holiday at the age of 44 in 1959.  Yet jazz, as I’ve noted before, is a palette of many colours, and as much virtue as there is in the emotionless pursuit of perfection as exemplified by some of the artists noted above, to me, jazz’s most endearing feature is its capacity for fun.  The joy that can come from jazz is deeper, because it does originate from a place of pain.  It is a cathartic release from a soul that has walked through the fire and emerged with a smile, recognizing that the hardest part of life is in the rear view mirror.  Dee Dee Bridgewater, whose performance at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre last evening paid tribute to the late Ms. Holiday, is someone who knows how to find the fun inside the sorrow, how to wring it from the pores and swing it across the stage in golden platform shoes, while occasionally getting caught on the microphone cord.

In person, Dee Dee Bridgewater is a striking, unusual, inescapably jazz figure – tall, leggy, elegant and glamorous, without a single hair atop her head.  Her background could not be more different than my jazz crush Emilie-Claire Barlow, but they are cut from the same cloth – seasoned performers possessed of extraordinary talent disciplined by impeccable timing and skill.  Bridgewater’s background includes a Tony win on Broadway and work with jazz royalty like Dizzy Gillespie and Dexter Gordon, but even to a modest crowd (that should have been a capacity house – shame on you Burlington) she gives it her absolute all, demonstrating tremendous vocal dexterity by flitting between the notes of Billie Holiday’s best in a flawlessly choreographed dance that with lesser chops could have been a catastrophic mess.    It’s not just a glorified karaoke night – where Billie Holiday’s take on these numbers was one of sorrow, Bridgewater rightly forges her own path, transforming them into songs of power and triumph while still paying tribute to the melancholy voice that originated them.  (Bridgewater can actually do a flawless and spine-chilling impression of Billie Holiday’s voice, but apart from one brief, jaw-dropping demonstration between numbers, rightly steers clear of imitation.)  Songs like “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Lover Man,” and “All of Me” become musical romps.  “Mother’s Son-in-Law” is a sassy double act between Bridgewater and her bass player as she vamps goofily like a way-past-her-prime burlesque madam.  One truly remarkable moment in “Fine and Mellow” sees Bridgewater performing a slide trombone solo – without a trombone.  It borders on comic, even silly as she mimics the movements of the slide, but she captures the sound of the instrument with only her voice, like a jazz Rich Little.  And in “A Foggy Day,” her quartet of piano, bass, drums and sax are each given their moment in the sun, proving that they share Bridgewater’s talent and ability to locate the kernel of joy inside each teardrop and spread it across the stage.

Improvisation lies at the heart of true jazz – bending and twisting the melody this way and that, playing themes to their outstretched limits.  But as Dee Dee Bridgewater shows, that improvisation doesn’t always have to be so goshdarned dour.  She and her band fuse ad libs, missteps and outright screw-ups into a smooth cocktail of pure entertainment.  Unlike her younger contemporaries, Bridgewater is looking back at a long career and understands that she has nothing left to prove – at this point, she’s doing it for the sheer love of music.  It’s a privilege to spend a few hours in the company of such a genuine performer, and one hopes that should Dee Dee Bridgewater pass through these streets again soon, that many more people will avail themselves of a priceless opportunity to watch a true professor of the spirit of jazz show them what it’s all about, and leave them smiling for their trouble.

Breaking the fourth wall: Michael Kaeshammer live

Michael Kaeshammer.

There is an unwritten rule when attending any performance, be it a concert, a play, even a political debate, that nary the twain shall meet.  It is that separation between performer and audience – he is up there, you are down in the seats, and though the performer may banter with you and encourage you to laugh, sing or applaud, that wall remains intact.  An implicit contract exists to ensure that you both remain in your respective spaces.  The trouble for a performer with the sheer energy of jazz pianist Michael Kaeshammer is that his energy defies captivity.  He bursts from the inside with the spirit of music; you can almost sense the electricity crackling from his skin.  He cannot remain confined; not to his piano, certainly not to the stage, and had the venue been open-air you could imagine him trying to jump onto the wing of a passing plane.  That is not to say his performance is anarchic, far from it – one does not get as good as he is without incredible discipline.  Thousands of notes come dancing and flying at you in the space of milliseconds without a single errant strike.  But watching his fingers fly across his instrument makes you wish that a piano had more than 88 keys, just so you could see what he could do with it.

Kaeshammer, German by birth (it’s pronounced CASE-hammer) but a resident of Canada is a disciple of the New Orleans sound with a dash of Victor Borge thrown in for good measure.  Last night’s performance at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre was a master class in the application of limitless verve to a style perfected forty years before he was born.  For him, a live show is not so much a chance to entertain fans as it is an opportunity to push the limits of expectation.  For Kaeshammer, the capacity of a piano isn’t restricted to its ivories:  he draws jazz from its shell, its strings, its lid and even creates an unusual harpsichord-like sound by placing a tambourine inside it.  Kaeshammer’s diverse repertoire pays tribute to the heyday of boogie-woogie (with a few gentle jabs at his father’s traditional rendition of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”), but tips its hat to a broader era by working in gospel staples like “People Get Ready” and a virtually unrecognizable – in a good way – cover of The Beatles’ “One After 909”.  And he’s just as at home in quieter numbers like the closing encore, Sam Cooke’s timeless classic “A Change is Gonna Come.”  Regular bassist Marc Rogers and drummer Mark McLean are on the train with as much love for the form and love of trickery as the guy at the keyboard:  Rogers wails on both the electric and the acoustic bass like a latter-day Hendrix, while McLean’s hands are little more than a blur as he uses sticks, brushes and fingertips to make a basic five piece drum kit sound like an entire percussion section.  The skill these guys exude is at a level beyond reach of most average musicians; it must frustrate wannabes that they look like they’re having so much darned fun doing it.  Kaeshammer is all smiles as he plays, tapping his feet as if possessed by a musical Pazuzu (or Stompin’ Tom Connors), and yet at any given point prone to get up and stroll around the stage, pop down into the audience and find an empty seat to appreciate the craftsmanship of his bandmates.  It goes without saying, perhaps, that this enthusiasm naturally bleeds through into the audience, who clap, stomp, sing and cheer for more.  This accessibility in watching him perform makes it less like going to a formal show and more like your buddy Mike invited you over for a beer in his den, which happened to have a grand piano and a backing band in it, and they decided on a spontaneous jam.

Like Emilie-Claire Barlow, Michael Kaeshammer proves that the spirit of jazz is alive and well in these chilly climes far beyond the sticky, swampy bayous of Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain, and that it hasn’t been diminished by the deafening wail of pop and hip-hop in the mainstream music scene.  That there is still room for this amazing virtuoso display of ability and exuberance, that music can still surprise you by defying the straitjacket rules of form and function (and what sells well) is cause for thanks, celebration, and a well-deserved standing ovation.  Kaeshammer has no boundaries in either his playing and in his performance, and least of all in the fourth wall.  Indeed, the ability to reach past the proscenium and touch something inside each soul, is the stuff of music itself – something Michael Kaeshammer has certainly figured out.

Monday morning madness

One ring to marry them all.

A dear writer friend who passed away a few years ago used to send out regular emails every Monday morning with this title.  They’d consist of a few witty observations on life, stuff that happened on the weekend, what her cats were up to and would often close with a cheesy joke.  Her initials were M.E.S. so she’d sign off with “Jst a Mes.”  In my first writing critique group, she was the first of us to be published – sadly, only posthumously, but she remains an inspiration.  She was one of the guests at my wedding almost five years ago, and it occurred to me that since that day, three of the 64 guests in attendance at our celebration have since departed our company, my dear grandfather among them.  Although, there have been at least three, if not more, babies born to that same group of people as well since that day, so, as the Stranger opines at the end of The Big Lebowski, “I guess that’s how the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuating itself.”

Speaking of my wedding, my better half noticed online the other day that the first house we lived in together was up for sale, and had an open viewing this past weekend.  We had only lived there for one year – we were renting, and while we weren’t asked to go we did get the sense that our landlady was keen to sell, and we were fine to find something a little more affordable.  And, although relatively unspoken at the time, there were some troubled memories associated with the house that we were anxious to leave behind.  We had moved in as boyfriend and girlfriend, run the proverbial emotional gauntlet but emerged triumphant as husband and wife.  Anyway, we had to drop by and see how the old gal was getting on.  What struck us most was how small it felt – not that where we live now is a McMansion, but we were boxed in by a peculiar sense of confinement and constriction as we wandered through the rooms.  Perhaps it was an appropriate metaphor for what we were going through at the time, a concentration of emotion and event into limited space from which a stronger bond is eventually forged.  It had been renovated substantially since we lived there, the ubiquitous pink carpet that neither of us cared for replaced with hardwood.  But I still felt a bit of a chill as I stood in the exact spot that five years ago Valentine’s Day, I knelt, opened my hand to reveal a cheap Lord of the Rings replica One Ring – all I could afford at the time – and asked her to marry me.  She has a much nicer one now, and we have a home that feels very open and free, where we can relax and just be – or at the least, plenty of rooms to run and hide in when we (i.e. me) forget to take the chicken out to defrost for dinner.

I’ve talked about this before, in the context of Twitter, but one of the wonderful things about modern communication is the reduction in distance and increase in intimacy between the artist and the audience, and not, at least when it is used responsibly, in a scary stalker kind of way.  Emilie-Claire Barlow was kind enough to retweet my review of her show to her followers.  Very cool – and just reinforces my point about how awesome she is.  Thanks, Ms. Barlow!  Hmm… Emilie-Claire Barlow, Rob Lowe I’m sensing a rhyming pattern here.  I should write something about Gwyneth Paltrow and see what happens.

On a completely different note, I think it’s time to do away with Daylight Savings Time.  A few years ago, it was decided to advance it a month in the calendar, the end result being that as soon as you feel like you’re turning the corner of having to wake up and go to work in the darkness every morning, you get slapped back into it for another month and a half of exhaustion and caffeine injections.  As I understand it, DST was invented to assist farmers in making the most of their daylight hours – given that we are no longer as agrarian a society, perhaps this tradition too can go the way of the telegraph and the wax cylinder recording.  I always feel more tired during the eight-odd months of DST hours than I do on Standard Time – my body really misses that extra hour and never quite adjusts to it.  I guess I probably wouldn’t do very well living in Maine or New Brunswick.

On a final, hopefully amusing note before we embark on this week’s adventures, a few more of the wacky search engine terms people are finding me with.  Again, not that I mind the site traffic – far from it.  The more the merrier; I just imagine, as U2 would put it, that you still haven’t found what you’re looking for.

  • apollo crackers – Not quite sure what these are, perhaps crunchy space food eaten by Armstrong and Aldrin, or a very ironic euphemism for white people who enjoy Harlem jazz.
  • long psychedelic jams – Groovy, baby!  “They call ’em fingers, but I’ve never seen ’em fing… oh, there they go.”
  • render anime boy – I don’t even know what to say about this one.  It strikes me as vaguely creepy.

Have a great day, fellow crusaders.

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.