August 27th, 2002
By Howard Reich

Patricia Barber writes her own 'Verse'

Patricia Barber
Blue Note/Premonition
The voice -- soft, sensuous and insinuating -- may be instantly recognizable, but the words prove utterly fresh and original.

So even those familiar with the art of singer-pianist Patricia Barber may be caught off-guard by the austere power of her newest recording, "Verse," which is being released nationally on Tuesday.

With "Verse" (Blue Note/Premonition), Barber proves beyond doubt that she's more than just another fine singer-pianist in a city filled with them. More important, she announces herself as a keenly articulate wordsmith whose lyrics are smarter, savvier and more artfully crafted than a great deal of today's songwriting. She will play music from "Verse" Thursday at the opening night of the Chicago Jazz Festival.

It was the dearth of literate new lyrics that years ago prompted Barber to try her hand at penning some of her own. She long had complained that the level of songwriting established by brilliant writers such as Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, Hal David and the like had fallen precipitously, as the American music industry increasingly focused its attention on ever-younger record-buyers.

So she began writing lyrics for grown-ups, most notably on her breakthrough recording, "Modern Cool" (1998). On that haunting disc, Barber dared to place her own songs up against classic material by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz ("You and the Night and the Music"), among others. But if Barber originals such as "Touch of Trash" and "Postmodern Blues" showed the witty, ironic side of Barber's muse, "Verse" reveals her as a lyricist of considerable range and erudition, meanwhile taking us deeper into Barber's unabashedly idiosyncratic view of the world.

When Barber plays the Chicago Jazz Festival, her fans will behold the latest major phase of her evolution: A jazz singer-pianist who occasionally wrote songs has re-emerged as a bona fide singer-songwriter who happens to be steeped in jazz idioms.

Even those familiar with Barber's art, however, may be caught off-guard by this transformation, if only because of how completely she has pulled it off. Straddling the worlds of jazz and pop, singing and songwriting, composition and improvisation, Barber has created songs that not only withstand repeated listening but nearly require it.

Though anyone can enjoy on first hearing the withering humor of "You Gotta Go Home" (a kind of jazz response to Paul Simon's "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover") or the sly eroticism of "I Could Eat Your Words" (with its shrewd references to the chestnut "Teach Me Tonight"), other Barber tunes probe deeply and unflinchingly into the nature of modern-day life and romance.

"The same cup of coffee/the same dog, the same wife/reliable revulsion/for sticky situations in life," she whispers on "Regular Pleasures," a sober examination of love that has become routine. "Let's be average/as we regale in this love and/leave me sweetly/stuck/in my rut."

Not exactly Britney Spears.

And when was the last time you heard a contemporary song lyric adapted from a text by the French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine? Barber's "Dansons La Gigue" does precisely that.

If there's a thread that runs through all of this music, it's Barber's flair for scrutinizing personal relationships, skewering social fads and questioning her own motives and ambitions.

But her lyrics -- sometimes lucid, sometimes ambiguous, always alluring -- are rendered all the more appealing by a voice that remains one of the most purling and evocative in jazz. Vocally, in fact, Barber never has sounded better, her phrases fluid, her vibrato tautly controlled, her tone more expressive than at any other time in her career.

And because she also has developed steadily as a bandleader, Barber -- who produced this CD -- deftly has surrounded her vocals with comparably effective instrumentals. Dave Douglas' sublime trumpet solos, Neal Alger's atmospheric guitar work and Cliff Colnot's shimmering string arrangements hardly could have been more sensitively conceived for her intimate brand of performance.

Perhaps some will balk at Barber's decision to build an entire recording on her own melodies and lyrics, which are not well-known commodities even in the insular world of jazz. Yet anyone who has followed the arc of Barber's career for the past couple of decades knows that she always has done exactly what she has wanted to do, consequences notwithstanding.

Even so, she has seen major labels come courting, as Blue Note did when it started to distribute the music she recorded for Chicago-based Premonition Records, a small but artistically distinguished label.

Moreover, practically everything Barber has recorded in the past few years has turned up on the Billboard jazz charts, a measure not only of the appeal of Barber's music but also of her ability to convey complex ideas to a broader audience. Regardless of how "Verse" is received by record buyers, it clearly represents another important landmark in the career of an artist who never has stopped experimenting -- and, one hopes, never will.