At first glance, she appears to be the girl next door, dimples and all. But open your ears for a minute or two, and you’ll discover that Emilie-Claire Barlow is a sophisticated Canadian jazz singer. Her soft-swinging style, which she pulls off exactingly, yet casually, in English and French is easy to listen to. Her lithe voice, clean articulation and rhythmic intelligence echo aspects of Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Stevie Wonder, her performing role models. Her mostly soprano voice moves up and down scales fluidly, though her voice doesn’t have the power of Cecile McLorin Salvant’s, who also sings bilingually in French and English. Not that Barlow is trying to channel her. Instead, she’is a subtle understated singer who fills the room with good will, poetry and accessible tunes.
Born to musicians, Barlow grew up around recording studios in Toronto, and by her early 20s, was singing jazz, doing voice-overs, and winning accolades. In her 25-year career, she has collected a ton of awards, including the 2008 Female Vocalist of the Year at the National Jazz Awards, two vocal JUNO awards, and number of recording awards. She’s put out 13 albums, and the thirteenth–Spark Bird, released this spring on her independent label (the 18-year-old Empress Music Group)–is the reason we saw and heard her in Portland. Her tour continues for several months and has stopped at, among other places, New York (at Birdland, of course), San Antonio and Denver, and will wind up in July at the Montreal Jazz Fest.
During this first United States tour, Barlow appeared with her band on April 7 at the 1905 jazz club in Portland’s Mississippi neighborhood. The intimate space, compared at times to the small Mezzrow on West 10th Avenue in New York, holds about 50 people. The place was an ideal fit for the unflashy Barlow, and though she put on two shows, perhaps not enough jazz fans heard her. If they did, they got an earful of new bird-oriented tunes off Spark Bird, a bit of scatting, some oldies like “Somewhere over the Rainbow” (also on Spark Bird) and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” She made the oft-sung “Rainbow” fresh and bird-friendly, easily moving into a bossa nova vibe, singing, “If bluebirds fly over the rainbow, why can’t I?” She released her “Somewhere over the Rainbow” single in January before the LP came out.
Between songs, she filled the room with impassioned bird talk. She considers birds “nature’s musicians,” and when one appears, it changes the world. “They have the power to transport me. Birds are my joy, my fascination, and they tell a story.”
And so her new album is all about them. Her CD, as well as her concert, included “Fais Comme l’Oiseau” (translated into English as “Do Like the Bird”) with a lyric that translates as “act like a bird, it lives on pure air and fresh water.” She sang it in French, and on this tune, she usually swings with tenor saxophonist Kelly Jefferson but the musician wasn’t around for the gig. Instead she was confidently backed by the remaining four of her usual quintet: Reg Schwager on guitar, bassist Jon Maharaj, pianist Amanda Tosoff and drummer Fabio Ragnelli.
A “spark bird,” as most enthusiastic birders know, is a bird that really turns you on, a favorite that keeps you on the lookout for another. Barlow’s spark bird is the loud and comically crested yellow-winged cacique, which she sees when hanging out in Mexico on the Pacific Coast, her second home after Toronto. “Their vocabulary fascinates me,” she said, imitating its call as precisely as she scats.
“Skylark,” doubling on the album and in the gig, is an oldie but forever goodie by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. Barlow’s band made it new (not that it ever ages much) with guitarist Schwager’s deft accompaniment. “Little Jazz Bird,” a Gershwin standard, and Stevie Wonder’s 1974 “Bird of Beauty” were among the concert’s hits. And she couldn’t leave out “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” a regular of hers.
Surprisingly at the end of the gig she threw in “These Boots are Made for Walking,” a tune Nancy Sinatra made famous decades ago. The audience loved it, and certainly it was a change-up from the more reflective songs in which birds took center stage. I was very happy to have Barlow and her band in our fly-by zone, but she could have left Nancy and her boots at home (or in New Jersey).
The CD is illustrated with Caroline Brown’s bird drawings, including a bright orange bunting for “Over the Rainbow,” a lone great blue heron for “Fais Comme L’Oiseau” and an Australian pink robin for “Little Jazz Bird.” Yep, some listeners use CDs as coasters, but this album offers a lot to look at and to listen to.