Barber proves that art remains very much alive
September 13, 2004

By Howard Reich

Roughly two decades ago, Patricia Barber was just another Chicago lounge singer, trying to find her voice and herself in various nightclubs, most famously the long-gone Gold Star Sardine Bar.

Over the weekend, she took the stage of the Park West, in Lincoln Park, affirming her status as one of the most original and insightful singer-songwriters in a jazz world sorely lacking in them.

Indeed, in an age when pipsqueak voices and easy-listening sensibilities routinely draw critical praise and commercial success, Barber has emerged as the anti-diva: a singer uninterested in assuming the usual romantic poses, a songwriter unwilling to pen cloyingly sweet love songs, a pianist who actually has something distinctive to say at the keyboard.

Though Barber may never attain the mass adoration lavished upon lesser talents, she towers over them because she consistently chooses art over entertainment, music over marketing, substance over style.

You could hear it in every piece that she and her top-flight jazz quartet played Saturday night, to a large crowd that listened raptly. If the "engineers" at the sound board did Barber no favors by over-miking her vocals -- leaving some of her fascinatingly literate song lyrics too reverberant to decode -- the essence of Barber's art survived.

As if to remind listeners right away that she's not simply a jazz singer, Barber opened her concert with an extended jazz improvisation, the first of several. So, even if Barber hadn't sung a note, this performance would have given listeners a great deal to absorb.

As pianist, Barber has developed a cogently telegraphic style, flitting from one nervous rhythm to another, from bursts of dissonance to shards of melody to arresting moments of silence. If the elegance of her touch and the clarity of her tone recall the idiom of Bill Evans, Barber transcends that model through the rhythmic explosiveness and stylistic unpredictability of her pianism. In essence, she seems to draw on a different keyboard vocabulary every two bars or so.

Ultimately, though, many listeners come to Barber for the cool voluptuousness of her vocals, which have no counterpart in jazz singing today. Hovering mostly in the middle and low registers -- while most of today's songbirds chirp gleefully up high -- Barber produces a deep and translucent pool of sound. The fluidity of her phrasings and the liquidity of her lines represent a distinct contribution to the evolution of jazz singing, for she defies conventional ways of articulating notes and rhythms.

The effect of these unorthodox techniques on traditional repertoire can be galvanic, as in her haunting reworking of the venerable "Laura," which also appears on her new CD, "Live: A Fortnight in France" (on Blue Note Records). The very possibility that anyone could have something significant to add to one of the most recorded of jazz standards might have seemed remote, until Barber dared to remake it with an exquisitely slow tempo, impossibly idiosyncratic phrasing and alluring shades of light and half-light.

But Barber's most provocative work emerged in her original songs, which won't be turning up on "smooth jazz" stations any time soon. She sang "Pieces" -- a brilliant poetic lament on the aftermath of a breakup -- still more imploringly than on the recording. And she practically snarled "Whiteworld," a searing indictment of certain prevalent cultural attitudes.

With Neal Alger offering musical solos on guitar, Michael Arnapol articulating sonorous lines on bass and Eric Montzka producing vivid colors and intricate cross-rhythms on percussion, this band offered more than atmospheric accompaniment for Barber. It helped her show that there's hope for the endangered art of jazz singing.