Patricia Barber among exciting new releases
September 5, 2004

By Howard Reich

The jazz record industry may be in shambles, but the music itself retains remarkable vitality.

Three particularly alluring new releases, in fact, suggest that the best jazz artists continue to produce groundbreaking work, despite the crumbling infrastructure of pre-Internet distribution systems.

Though listeners have come to expect illuminating results from Patricia Barber, "Live: A Fortnight in France" (to be released Tuesday, on Blue Note) represents another significant stride by the innovative Chicago singer-pianist-songwriter. For in bringing a heightened degree of intimacy and sonic sheen to a live recording, Barber reveals a deepening ability to lure listeners into her sonic world.

The extraordinary level of nuance, subtlety and color of her vocals, in fact, might lead casual listeners to believe that "A Fortnight in France" is a studio recording. Strip away the robust applause from obviously rapt audiences, and Barber seems to be not in France but in your living room, whispering hauntingly into your ear.

In a way, Barber has become a virtuoso at exploiting not only the tonal resources of her alto but also at using a microphone to maximal effect. By directing her voice this way or that, by caressing the mike at one moment and withdrawing from it the next, she produces tones, half-tones and shadings utterly unique to her.

So even in a well-worn standard such as "Laura," her ability to create softly ethereal sounds and strangely unexpected turns of phrase practically remake the tune. The interpretation is so distinctive and unconventional, yet so mindful of the original contours of the melody, that Barber's "Laura" has the makings of a potential classic.

And in "Call Me," another pulpy relic of an earlier age, Barber's savvy reinvention -- complete with a dreamy introduction that practically suspends time -- brings into play layers of meaning the tune otherwise never conveyed. Suddenly, a sexy little tease of a song has something deeper to say.

During the past few years, however, Barber has reached beyond merely interpreting jazz and pop standards, and she reiterates the point with some of the most erudite jazz songwriting being penned today.

"On the dark side of passion/comes a taste for revenge," she sings in "Gotcha," an eerie, interior look at paranoia. "In the night is there/a rustle just under your bed?"

By the time Barber has finished intoning her macabre list of things that might go wrong, the listener doesn't feel quite as safe in his or her skin again.

Meanwhile, the withering social commentary she unfurls in "Whiteworld" proves that at least one of today's major female jazz singers is penning something besides saccharine love songs, while "Pieces" ranks among the more shattering poems written on the aftermath of a breakup.

Yet when sung by Barber and accompanied by her somewhat nervous, spiky jazz piano -- with sublimely atmospheric contributions from guitarist Neal Alger and the rest of her band -- even Barber's most barbed comments prove difficult to resist.