Five years ago, I sat dangerously close to the back of a guitar amp at The Rex Hotel. Just on the other side of the amp, stood Emilie-Claire Barlow—a name I’d heard tossed around in jazz circles, but a voice I was still unfamiliar with. On that warm summer night in a crowded jazz club, I fell in love. Emilie-Claire swept me from the first perfectly delivered note and has managed to hold my interest since.
Any ECB performance is pure proof of Gladwell’s Outliers in action. Barlow put in her ten thousand hours singing jingles and in jazz combos through late childhood and her teens perfecting her craft at Humber college and simply “got good,” on the road, in the studio and more importantly, behind the piano. Her most recent disc, The Beat Goes On, shows off her talent, not only as a jazz singer with highly developed chops, but as an interpreter and arranger.
The Beat Goes On is a departure for the Toronto-based Barlow who has made a career of re-arranging classics from the American songbook. A collection of songs from the 1960s, the record features gems from Dylan and Donovan, and tunes made famous by Neil Sedaka and the Shirelles. Gone are the lush and warm string arrangements from Barlow’s previous three albums, bringing back the larger brass ensembles, something I have been missing since Happy Feet.
Barlow opens the album with an infectious 6 over 8 version of “Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head” and follows up with a 7 over 4 take of Donavan’s “Sunshine Superman.” Both of these arrangements capture the fun and bouncy nature of the lyrics and are inflected with Barlow’s own flare for creative arranging and execution. “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” whose marshmallow-like flugelhorn solo combined with Barlow’s tender delivery, would cushion the impact of a 100 kph head on break up while the Latin-infused “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” makes the words penned by Bob Dylan over 40 years ago spark in a bittersweet kind of way. The bossa-groove gives this tune wheels and Barlow’s performance is a fitting tribute to this song.
Elsewhere, Barlow refreshes an old country standard with sax and acoustic guitar on “He Thinks I Still Care” adding innovative harmonic delivery with a stripped down arrangement that enables the lyric to flow. The title track is all kinds of fun. It’s the Side Winder meets Quincy Jones with Barlow’s fun and catchy lyrical delivery overtop “Soul Bossa Nova” with a large ensemble. This catchy track is made for head bopping, toe-tapping and bed jumping.
Barlow’s strength as an arranger and performer is most evident on “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” which abandons the familiar chromatic bass hook and opts for a simple arrangement of congas, guitar, bass and sax. The arrangement leaves ample room for Emilie-Claire to show off her playful side with the lyric. The key changes and percussion solos give the piece life, helping it stand out as one of the album’s noteworthy tracks.
“Little Boat” is another Barlow samba special, full of life, Brazilian charm and sunshine. I love the background vocals on this track. Its successor, “Comme je crie, Comme je chante” adds grit and sass to the record.
For her interpretation of Carol King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” Barlow strips this track to the raw and tender nerve of the lyric, cleverly masked in the Shirelles version. The lyrical delivery is contemplative, full of doubt and honestly thick with emotion, making it the perfect companion to a late night drive. “Until It’s Time for You To Go” and “T’es pas un Autre” are beautifully sung, both the English and French versions dripping with warmth and character.
“Yester-me, Yester-you, Yesterday” is the album’s penultimate track finding Barlow keeping it smart and simple. reminiscent of her earlier records where the band disappears and it’s just ECB and the rhythm section delivering an honest performance.
Some fans might miss Barlow’s trademark vocalese, singing pyrotechnics and the familiar arrangements from her previous albums, but The Beat Goes On stands on its own as an evolution for the singer. My only critiques are minor, relating to some of the mixing for the album, but the arrangements and performance make up for this in a very delightful way. If you haven’t heard Emilie-Claire Barlow yet, I recommend this album as a primer and promise that you’ll fall in love, like I did, back on that summer’s night at The Rex. – Kevin Shaw