It is hard to believe that it took Canadian jazz singer, Emilie-Claire Barlow until 2023 to make her debut in NYC.
She has long been recognized as one of her home country’s most gifted musical minds and has been an award-winning vocalist for over 25 years. Through her marvelous recordings over that time, I became a fan long ago, and I have always counted it as my loss that I have never gotten to see her live, but I assumed it was my fault for missing her. Now I know that I can stop blaming myself.
Downstairs at the Birdland Theater was the perfect location for her to rectify the situation even if the upstairs club might have been more suited to her superlative jazz musicianship and vocals. She filled the downstairs stage with some of the fantastic musicians who appear on her latest album, Spark Bird. The title comes from the birding phrase for the first bird that inspires an interest in watching, investigating, and exploring birds. This new avocation developed while she was in lockdown during COVID. While the recording is filled with on-topic tunes, Barlow wisely chose to broaden her repertoire for her first New York appearance. She provided an involving overview of her career thus far, while taking time out to feature several of the newer tracks. The chemistry between the singer and her quintet of remarkable musicians—Amanda Tosoff (piano), Jon Maharaj (bass), Fabio Ragnelli (drums), Reg Schwager (guitar), and Kelly Jefferson (tenor saxophone)—was as delightful as it was obvious. The singer’s arrangements and her constantly shifting interplay with her band were as impressive as her vocals.
She opened with Hannah Barstow’s “Where Will I Be” which, while raising the uncertainty and tumult of pandemic times with a folkish sound, became a sort of floating jazz invocation for the evening, highlighted by wordless passages of lullaby-like beauty. “Over the Rainbow” (Harold Arlen, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg) was given a distinct, percussive beat by her inventive work on the triangle, coupled with Ragnelli’s drumming. The number was infused with the joy of existence rather than the traditional longing for it. “Fais comme l’oiseau” (Antonio Carlos Marques, Jocafi, Pierre Delanoe) loosely translates to “Do Like the Birds;” its loveliness was marred by the dolts in the audience who took the foreign language as license to talk all the louder over her very pretty vocals. Sometimes I am embarrassed as well as irritated by New York audiences.
Barlow’s very personal take on “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” (Burt Bacharach, Hal David) was a revelation, achieving some Jackie & Roy level flights of rhythmic fancy. The song was at once understated and audacious, beautifully simple, and ingeniously complex. The overdone “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” had its cobwebs dusted off smartly by the freshness of the arrangement which began with a descending bass line, then moved on to the sophisticated percolating swing of the blazing sax, before being handily climaxed and stolen by the superb drums. All the while, the singer’s playfully sexy vocals tied it all together in another of her remarkable arrangements. Jumping continents as easily as she jumped decades and genres, her version of “O Pato” (João Gilberto), while respecting its samba origins, took its place in the modern world that the singer was creating.
By this point in the set, Barlow had displayed such a complete mastery of the music and the storytelling of her choices that she could pull from myriad times and sources and shape them into a cohesive and thrillingly personal statement. Taking as her inspiration the Kenny Kirkland piano solo on the original, Sting’s “La Belle Dame Sans Regrets” floated gentle, elegant waves of music out to the audience with more depth and mystery and romance than the original to these ears due to the exquisite blend of voice, piano, and horn. The musical conversation was a joy to behold but, then again, tours de force had become the order of the night without a trace of pomp or flash. The vocals and instrumentation gave just what was needed to be in service to the songs. A duet with bass on Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” burned slowly with the gentlest of blues. The understated yet impassioned fusion of guitar and voice caressed “Skylark” (Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer), and its ageless beauty was a gentle reminder of why songs become standards in the first place.
For “Little Jazz Bird” (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin), Barlow provided vocalise inspired by the guitar solo and wittily interpolated “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along.” The one (albeit minor) stumble was Stevie Wonder’s “Bird of Beauty,” which, surrounded by the other stellar choices, fell a bit flat. But she immediately jumped back on track with a heart-stopping, beautiful embrace of Coldplay’s “O” (Guy Berryman, Johnny Buckland, Chris Martin, Will Champion). It proved another masterstroke, in no way less magical for the absence of the strings which cushion it on the recording.
Then came the irresistible groove of a fun, down and dirty take on “These Boots Are Made for Walking” (Lee Hazelwood) that has become one of her signature songs north of the border and was a far cry from Nancy Sinatra’s classic curio. A breezy, swinging jump into “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” (Harry M Woods) capped the night with a thrilling blend of the classic and the modern that seems to be one of Emilie-Claire Barlow’s most remarkable talents. Her arrangements, her writing, her vocals, her phrasing, and her captivating personality combine to make her one of a kind. Hopefully she will turn out to be one of the kinds of brilliant performers that return regularly to the venerable upstairs jazz room at Birdland now that she has proven herself to be an overnight sensation 25 years in the making.
Presented at the Theater at Birdland, 315 W. 44th St., NYC, on April 1, 2023.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”