During the dark isolation days of the coronavirus pandemic, award-winning Canadian songstress Emilie-Claire Barlow found herself at an artistic crossroads. She questioned if she would ever want to make another record to add to her impressive 12-album oeuvre. She hadn’t been able to tour and she wasn’t aroused to assemble a new collection of songs.

In her 25-year career of delivering a distinctive and accessible style of vocal jazz, Barlow has accrued a remarkable resume of critical success, including seven Juno nominations, with two jazz vocal Juno

awards—2013’s best Jazz Vocal Recording for her all-French song collection Seule ce soir and her Clear Day collaboration with the Metropole Orkest winning the same award in 2016. Also in 2013, Barlow scored a Felix Award for Seule ce soir as ADISQ’s Album of the Year—Jazz Interpretation. Previously, she had been named Female Vocalist of the Year at the 2008 National Jazz Awards.

So, despite the pause time of recent years, you can’t fully quiet a vital creative artist. Case in point: Barlow’s return to action with her brilliant new album, Spark Bird, that she co-produced with her partner Steve Webster.

After a five-year hiatus from releasing a full album, this year finds Barlow in fine Spark Bird shape to wing her career to a new plateau. Little did she guess during the dark times that a daily visit from a yellow-winged cacique that is native to the southern Pacific Coast of Mexico would inspire her to dedicate an entire album of songs to birds of all shapes and varieties.

Released on her own independent label, Empress Music Group, which she founded in 2005, Spark Bird takes flight in its entirety on March 31. As Barlow writes in her liner notes, “A bird arrives and changes everything.” Before its debut, she is offering a cascade of singles, beginning January 20 and continuing every two weeks until the release date. “Birds have the power to completely transport me,” says Barlow, who splits her time between Toronto and Mexico where she and Webster are building a house with a fully

operational studio. “So, when I decided to do the album, I started going down this path of gathering songs about birds. They’re my joy, my fascination. These songs tell a story.”

The first hatching comes with Barlow delivering a bright jazz voyage into the Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg standard, “Over the Rainbow” (the single released on January 20). Relaxed yet energetic, Barlow leads the way for her quintet to soar into a percussive bossa swing. True to her theme, she buoyantly sings, “If bluebirds fly over the rainbow, why can’t I fly?”

Barlow follows the first single on February 3 with the playful single “Fais comme l’oiseau” (translated: “Do Like the Bird”) where she delightfully sings in French the hopeful voice of bird-like patience while swinging with tenor saxophonist Kelly Jefferson’s lyrical lines. Choral translation: “Act like a bird/It lives on pure air and fresh water/On a bit of hunting and fishing/But nothing ever stops it from going higher.”

Both singles offer a fresh beginning to a captivating eight-song avian journey that began with the magical cacique incident.

“In our Mexican home, the biodiversity is incredible,” Barlow says. “The bird activity is off the charts. My first personal experience came when a bird kept tapping on the window of our guest room and squawking loudly. When I tried to catch a glimpse, it would fly out. So we set up a camera and caught this wonderful, comical activity of a yellow-winged cacique that I discovered was a very common bird for this area. I started spotting them everywhere and hearing them—their vocabulary fascinates me.”

She started to tune into the variety of bird voices that she says is a “constant soundtrack,” with rhythmic tapping, high-pitched whistles, piercing calls, soft sporadic whistles, diatonic melodies. “It’s the closest thing to living in an aviary,” she says. “As the sun appears, you hear the orchestra warm up. Birds are nature’s musicians.”

Barlow hastens to note that while she is not a member of an organized birder group, her appreciation of the choirs and colors of birds has heightened her passion to learn more about her winged discoveries.

Other bird songs include a show-stopping, uptempo reimagining of Stevie Wonder’s 1974 hit “Bird of Beauty” (part of the chorus encouraging ”Take a chance and ride the bird of beauty of the sky”). Then there’s Barlow’s unique sexy, romantic, blues-touched read of the Hoagie Carmichael/Johnny Mercer standard “Skylark” with a surprising swell of strings arranged by Drew Jurecka. On the Gershwin & Gershwin classic tune, “Little Jazz Bird,” Barlow swerves from the obvious with the playful song—adding in another popular melody from the ’20s, “When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along),” as a countermelody and ending the song with guitarist Reg Schwager’s solo that Barlow uses for a noteworthy stretch of vocalese.

Barlow sings deep into the mystery and longing of the futuristic “Where Will I Be?”—“When there’s no more rain, no more sun/Will there still be birds?”—by the Toronto-based composer Hannah Barstow who plays piano on the track and in Spanish renders Manolo Garcia’s “Pájaros de Barro” in a duo format with pianist Chris Donnelly as the appropriate closing song about seizing the day and flying free.

The most poignant song of the collection is Barlow’s moving take on Coldplay’s “O” that was arranged by band pianist Amanda Tosoff. “This song has a special meaning,” the singer says. “I tragically lost a young family member in a plane crash. He and I and his mom were big fans of Coldplay, so the lyrics of ‘fly on’ are so relevant. I played this at his funeral. For this album version, we used strings and Rachel Therrien offers a melancholic, mournful flugelhorn solo.”

In addition to the bird songs of joy and sorrow on Spark Bird, Barlow has worked with graphic designer Caroline Brown of Whitebear Design to create original bird illustrations. “Caroline’s avatars for each song are so whimsical, playful and special,” Barlow says. “And she has me interacting with them in some way. There’s a happy orange-breasted bunting for ‘Over the Rainbow,’ a graceful and solitary great blue heron for the darkness of ‘Fais comme l’oiseau,’ a flock of swallows for ‘O,’ a ridiculously cute Australian pink robin for ‘Little Jazz Bird.’ And the signature bird for ‘Pájaros de Barro’ is my yellow-winged cacique.”

So, Spark Bird ends with the noisy, comical bird that served as the inspiration for her soulful, emotive music. In her liner notes, Barlow writes, “When that cacique tapped on my window, I felt a spark. Not just

a budding bird obsession, but the curiosity and desire to see what life would be like if I spent more time in this place that makes me feel so buoyant and full of wonder…the birds—a constant source of joy and inspiration—have reignited my spark. For that, I’m full of gratitude.”

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