CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Her Way - Patricia Barber Continues To Evolve With Soft Sounds On Ravishing `Nightclub'

Patricia Barber
Nightclub
Blue Note/Premonition
The most consequential artists -- the visionaries who either change the course of music or set standards to which others aspire -- do not make compromises. Through sheer originality and force of will, they persuade the listening public to consider new ways of hearing jazz. Chicago these days seems to have an abundance of such loriously intrepid souls, from reedist Ken Vandermark and guitarist Fareed Haque to several generations of experimenters nurtured by the South Side's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

Among these visionaries, none has scoffed at commercial temptation more consistently than singer-pianist-songwriter Patricia Barber. She has walked away from career-making record deals, ignored promoters who told her what to do, and turned her back on world-class management.

Yet Barber's refusal to play by the corporate rules has yielded not only an indispensable music but precisely the commercial success she has not sought. In fact, the more firmly Barber slams the door on personal managers, record executives and other jazz profiteers, the more resoundingly the international public seems to rush to snap up her recordings.

So it seems likely that Barber's newest release, the ravishing "Nightclub" (Premonition/Blue Note), will help sustain one of more the remarkable paradoxes in jazz today: the ascendance of an accomplished Chicago performer who makes the record industry dance to her tune.

"Nightclub" stands among the most persuasive and intimate recordings of Barber's career, but it's critical to remember that it did not come out of a vacuum. Rather, it represents the inexorable next step in a series of recent discs that started boldly with "Cafe Blue" (1994) and developed with "Modern Cool" (1998) and "Companion" (1999).

Though Barber could have answered the call from a variety of New York and European labels that have been courting her for years, several years ago she took a path that seemed perverse at the time but has proven brilliant in retrospect. Barber surprised everyone in the early 1990s by signing with Premonition. The Chicago label was literally a one-man operation and seemed ill-equipped to deliver Barber's music to an audience as large as it deserved.

Many observers, including this one, thought that Barber might be committing career suicide with this move, but "career" never was her objective. Instead, she seemed intent on creating a sound and idiom of her own making, and finding the artistic and technical tools with which to realize it. If the process of creating her stripped-down, often austere approach to jazz improvisation began in earnest with "Cafe Blue," it has reached a new eloquence with "Nightclub."

As its title suggests, "Nightclub" evokes a specific time and setting, the nocturnal listening rooms where jazz always has flourished. "Something special can happen late at night in a jazz club. As the crowd thins, the musicians intuitively sense that those few who have stayed, have stayed for a reason," writes Barber, poetically, on the CD's record jacket.

"A reciprocity of need and desire inspires the musicians to dig as deeply into their talent and souls as they are able. This mysterious and transformative confluence of events rarely happens in concert. It is the province of the nightclub."

Given this atmospheric text, it's not surprising that "Nightclub" makes a statement that's so softly insinuating and introspective as to seem radical. In a music world that increasingly values noise, dissonance and ostentation, Barber stands out by whispering her ideas.

Yet she packs so much meaning into seemingly simple gestures, transparent textures and haunting melodicism that she forces the listener to reconsider the standards by which he or she gauges the jazz improviser's art.

In a way, Barber's quasi-minimalist aesthetic owes a great deal to trumpeters Miles Davis and Harry "Sweets" Edison at their most muted, but Barber also pushes beyond these precedents. The rhythmic languor she brings to "Bye Bye Blackbird," the sense of hushed rapture she conveys in "Yesterdays" and the sensuous vocal tone that define her readings of "Autumn Leaves" and "All or Nothing at All" place her among the most effective song interpreters today.

Here, Barber has created an ensemble sound in which her increasingly plush vocal timbre cannot be separated from the instrumentals that engulf it. Even with contributions from Barber's longtime bassist Michael Arnopol and guitarist Charlie Hunter, no single musical thread stands out. Everything belongs to the whole.

Some listeners might balk at Barber's unconventional phrasings in an album of standards, but repeated hearings likely will calm even the most determined skeptics. To hear Barber reinvent the way melody lines and lyrics unfold in well-worn pieces such as "Alfie" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily" may make listeners wonder why the tunes weren't always handled this way.

So Barber has reached a new plateau in "Nightclub," yet it's likely to be just another step in her ongoing evolution. For now, it's enough to note that Barber -- in midlife --is developing more dramatically than many younger artists. Little wonder Blue Note executives hustled to Chicago last year to forge a partnership with Barber, though the singer agreed only on her own terms: She still would record for tiny Premonition, with Blue Note distributing her records globally and placing its famous logo on her Premonition discs.

With "Nightclub," Barber has given Premonition and Blue Note more than they bargained for: a sublimely polished recording that points to great music yet to come.


---Howard Reich---