Singer Emilie-Claire Barlow and saxophonist Kelly Jefferson demonstrate the vibrancy of Canadian jazz at the NAC Presents launch on September 22, 2011. ©Brett Delmage, 2011
Singer Emilie-Claire Barlow and saxophonist Kelly Jefferson demonstrate the vibrancy of Canadian jazz at the NAC Presents launch on September 22, 2011. ©Brett Delmage, 2011
Jazz at the National Arts Centre will have a more Canadian slant this year, as part of a new initiative promoting Canadian musicians.

And one of the jazz artists involved – singer Emilie-Claire Barlow – applauds the initiative, and told how she was inspired by Canadian jazz singers as she was starting out.

At the official launch September 22, 2011, NAC producer Simone Deneau said that the inaugural season of “NAC Presents” will promote artists not covered by its theatre, dance, and orchestra series: including rock, folk, blues, hip-hop, chanson, and jazz. It will “enrich and expand” its coverage of those genres, she said, with performers new to the NAC. Deneau curated the initiative, which was fully supported by the NAC board of directors.

Besides John Geggie's longstanding jazz series, the NAC Presents jazz shows will include:

The fall jazz shows and the six concerts in the Geggie series had been previously announced and listed by

NAC President and CEO Peter Herndorff said that this initiative would provide a “national stage” for the artists in the series including “some of our best kept secrets”. The initiative would be a catalyst for promoting artists from every part of Canada, was part of implementing the NAC's 2008 strategic plan which called for providing greater support to Canadian performers.

The launch was opened by Toronto jazz singer Emilie-Claire Barlow and her band, including saxophonist Kelly Jefferson and guitarist Reg Schwager. She performed three pieces, one (“Chez Moi”) in French, and ended with her swinging version of Nancy Sinatra's hit from the 1960s, “These Boots are Made for Walkin'”, with some tasty sax interludes from Jefferson. talked to Barlow after the launch about the concert, her music, and her Canadian jazz influences. While you were performing earlier, you said you were very proud to be part of this particular series. How did this come about?

Emilie-Claire Barlow: We've been touring for The Beat Goes On since it came out last October. This is definitely one of the places that we were hoping to play – The National Arts Centre – and it worked out perfectly for part of their next season. It's actually probably going to be on the tail-end of our The Beat Goes On tour, so we'll be at that point about a year and a half after the record's come out, then building up for a little bit of a break and then possibly a new project. So do you think it adds a bit of prestige being part of this series?

Barlow: Well, yes. For me seeing the lineup of artists that they have is really pleasing to me because, as I mentioned out there, I love the mix of styles, genres. It's got really everything from rock to singer/songwriter to jazz. I think that's a great concert series for a music fan to go see a wide range of styles of music – maybe something that they're not even overly familiar with but they trust that the series is going to present them with something that's quality. So that to me looking at the lineup I think this is a really eclectic mix of groups, but they're all of a very high calibre. Do you have any specific Canadian jazz influences that started you off in your career?

Barlow: Yes. When I was in high school, and really starting to hone in on wanting to, falling in love with the jazz standards, I guess I would say because I studied music theatre in high school. So studying music theatre, we were learning these musicals, where a lot of these standards were from: American Songbook. And, at that time when I was in high school, Holly Cole was very present in the Toronto jazz scene, the Canadian jazz scene and I was definitely heavily influenced by her. Because I remember listening to her and thinking, 'She's doing something that nobody else is doing. She's taking a lot of these standards, and she's completely having her way with them.' Her and Aaron Davis and David Piltch – that trio – which was such a cohesive trio. A lot of chemistry between those three people. So I was very excited by what they were doing and by their interpretations of these standards. And it almost gave me permission to say,"Yes, you can do whatever you want with this music, and honour it, but find your own interpretation of it."

Also Diana Krall. In my final years of high school, [and] in my first years of studying theory and arranging at Humber College, Diana Krall was putting out her first couple of records and that was very exciting to me, too. There was this woman who really can play piano, can really swing, and really deliver this effortlessly-sounding vocal, that was obviously extremely appealing to a huge mass of people, reached so many people. And I think that in a way made jazz accessible to a lot of people who might otherwise think "Oh, jazz ... ah, you know" they have a preconceived notion of it being some cerebral kind of [music].

It can be [cerebral]. The word jazz covers a huge spectrum of styles, and I think that Diana Krall becoming a mainstream, household name was helpful in a way because it cemented the fact that no, there are lots of kinds of jazz and this is one of them. She is singing these beautiful songs that are timeless. She's honouring them. It was pared down to a simple trio even on her tribute album to Nat King Cole, All for You, which is one of my favourites. Piano, bass, and guitar, and it was an honest, true album, where she sang and played her butt off and it was really inspirational to me at that time. Still is one of my favourite records. So are you hoping that being part of this series will make what you're doing more accessible to the general audience?

Barlow: I think so. For me, it's been an interesting career because The Beat Goes On, my most recent album, was a little bit of a change in direction for me. In the past, I had been recording American Songbook standards, but this album was Sixties pop tunes done in a jazz style, that in a way expanded the audience I think a little bit. Or maybe opened the door to a different audience, who were simply curious about hearing these Sixties pop tunes that they loved, that they grew up with, like "Breaking Up is Hard to Do", and "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright", and "Sunshine Superman" – just simply curious to hear those songs presented in a different way, because they haven't been covered over and over and over again like some of the war horses that we talk about with the jazz standards. So, I think for me that was a little bit of a departure that I needed to do to grow, and to explore, and potentially it opened the doors to a broader audience as well.

But being part of this series, I think, you're going to get somebody who's a music fan. That's the most important thing. Somebody who's a fan of good music. And when music is played well, it doesn't matter what genre it is: it's good!

    – Alayne McGregor

See also: 2011-12 Geggie series: more Canadian ... or not?

All photos © Brett Delmage, 2011