August 31st, 2002

Barber mesmerizes fest crowd with new 'Verse'

Patricia Barber
Blue Note/Premonition
It was Patricia Barber's night.

Playing the opening night of the 24th annual Chicago Jazz Festival, in Grant Park, Barber somehow transformed a wide-open, noisy setting into something considerably more hushed and intimate.

It takes a savvy performer to persuade an outdoor audience to listen as attentively as it did to her. And Barber, who never has been particularly enamored of live performance, nevertheless clearly has become adept at seducing an audience. From the outset, her lusciously fluid vocals, uncommonly intelligent pianism and thoroughly disarming stage manner gave the evening its sole artistic triumph.

In some ways, this engagement was a test for Barber, who was singing original material from her latest and most daring recording, "Verse" (on Blue Note/Premonition). The question was whether a festival audience would respond to songs as idiosyncratic, introspective and rich in literary references as Barber's new works.

As it turned out, the audience devoured this music, chortling aloud at the wicked humor of her song "You Gotta Go" and savoring every witty metaphor of "I Could Eat Your Words" (or at least those that were intelligible in the acoustically challenged Petrillo Music Shell).

Even more powerful than Barber's shrewdly crafted lyrics, however, was the quality of her alto, which has become considerably more supple and expressive with the passage of time. Throughout her set, Barber achieved extraordinarily subtle musical effects with a voice that has evolved into one of the most distinctive in jazz. A note bent just a bit flat, a pitch graced with a hint of vibrato, a phrase that blooms at its dramatic peak -- these are the tools of Barber's increasingly refined art.

As pianist, too, Barber proved quite effective, punctuating her singing with sly keyboard commentary. Her gossamer touch hardly could have been more appropriate for "If I Were Blue," an exquisitely Impressionistic tone poem, while the percussive riffs she played for "You Gotta Go" neatly summed up the sentiments of the song's protagonist, who's trying to rid herself a particularly irritating lover.