The falafels we ate last summer

Tuesday, 28 June 2005 — 4:14pm | Jazz, Music

At some point in your life you’ve probably heard some controversy about this thing called “love at first sight,” which to me is neither that compelling an issue nor at all fair to blind people. It even arises in the hypothetical reality embedded in literature, as do most debates that circle around the kind of representational silliness that abounds when misattributing to fiction the false responsibility of corresponding to the human condition.

You don’t hear so much about love at first listen, probably because it’s systematically demonstrable and there is no reason to doubt its operation whatsoever. To take someone at face-value is subject to being considered shallow, but to take someone at voice-value is a different matter entirely, because the voice says something. And this ambiguous something is not limited to the words and utterances it produces; consider someone who speaks in another language, where that is not at all a factor. This is a “how” property that lies in tone and melody. I venture I am not the only one who never understood all the hype about Marilyn Monroe until that scene in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot where she punctuates “I Wanna Be Loved By You” with that meaningless little poo-poo bee-doo. That – not the Coca-Cola pin-up look or the Kennedy affair – that’s what made Miss Norma Jeane a legend.

A quick scan of Google’s 3,630 results for “love at first listen” reveals that it is almost exclusively used in reference to recording artists, from whom one can be detached in all other respects, and for whom melody is what feeds the kids. While I do think the possibility of the concept transcends this medium of delivery and is active in day-to-day personal interaction, I am not going to deviate from this pattern.

This most prolific of strains is the kind of FALAFEL (Far-Away Love At First Enchanting Listen) where listening to a certain vocalist for the first time – it might only be a track, though a fraction thereof is occasionally sufficient – sells you on their albums on the spot. Let’s call the most extreme case the Ella Effect, not because this immediate rush was what accompanied my first encounter with Ella Fitzgerald, but because if you didn’t react the same way the first time you heard her sing, you’re deaf.

The Ella Effect manifests an aural holiness of the highest and most elusive order. It’s a rare gem. In nerdier terms than I dare manage, we’re talking Alpha Edition Black Lotus rare. Lady Ella herself aside, you’re about as likely to be washed over by this whopper of a falafel as you are to stumble upon the Chris Houlihan room on a hot summer’s day. Hear it once, and that’s a songbird you’ll be listening to for the rest of your life.

And I think I’ve found the Ella Effect once more.

Meet Emilie-Claire Barlow. A few weeks ago I awoke to a CBC broadcast of her take on “The Things We Did Last Summer” from her superb new self-arranged album Like A Lover, which was released this month. The setup was about as minimalistic as you could get – just ECB singing over a walking upright bass, already of interest by itself given that writing bass lines and playing them on a so-so Clavinova sample is something I’ve been trying to pick up for some time. But the track title is a bit of a misnomer, because far from being that old Cahn/Styne jingle by its lonely little self, it’s a framing device for a vocalese trip around the sun, a scatty-wah collage of about a dozen standards of a seasonal bent.

It’s the kind of chart that makes you want to shell out for the record right now – which I couldn’t at the time, because it wasn’t released yet. But now I’ve acquired the disc along with her 2003 release Happy Feet, and she’s phenomenal.

The written word fails to provide an adequately lossless isomorphism that captures her sound, but I’ll do my best and describe her tone as… open, cheerful, happy. Lady may sing the blues, but boy, will they ever bring a smile to your face. She channels that excitable flavour of brightness that veers a sharp left on the cute-sexy spectrum, and this day in age when Canada flies the flags of Diana Krall’s moody alto and Molly Johnson’s, uh, being Billie Holiday, Emilie-Claire’s is the road less travelled. She also uses little or no piano, so the albums are pleasant to comp over if like yours truly, you’re an ivoryman who fancies to pretend that a chanteuse of her calibre would have anything to do with you.

Of all the jazz singers recording today, I think she’s my new favourite. It’s unfortunate that her upcoming performance schedule is limited to Ontario and Quebec, and makes nary a mention of us alienated provinces.

Ms. Barlow also keeps a blog. Here we return to what I said earlier about how voice-value says something: after listening to her recordings, her fruity, lighthearted bubblegum writing style should come as a surprise to nobody. And if a weblog isn’t a metric of personal disposition, then what is?

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