September 28th, 2001

ADDISON - Singer-pianist Patricia Barber asserted her endearing eccentricity the moment she stepped on stage at Sambuca Jazz Cafe in Addison on Thursday. As soon as she sat down at the piano, she took off her shoes and clamped her bare feet over the foot pedals.

This was only the first step toward making herself at home. Joining her three-piece band, she tossed off a few notes on the piano, while smiling out at her audience. But the comfort level still wasn't there. As the quartet continued to play, she signaled for a change in bench. The one she had wasn't wide enough. Someone came up and substituted a wider bench. No star attitude on Ms. Barber's part, as she stepped right in to move the new bench into place.

Now, things began to click. She bent over the keys as she played, facing the audience, her arms all akimbo, humming along to her playing, lifting her leg for emphasis, and every so often calling out an incoherent "Eppp!" in response to a killer solo from the band. She cut a cool figure: tall and thin, all in black, and wearing a black beret.

What a crazy, refreshing performance. The fact that Ms. Barber travels in the genre of jazz, plays piano and sings makes for automatic comparisons to Diana Krall. But Ms. Barber is kooky-cool and post-modern, in a 21st-century kind of way, rather than the loungey-retro profile of Ms. Krall.

The daughter of a saxophonist who played with Glenn Miller, Ms. Barber goes beyond the usual covering of standards, writing her own material as well as giving odd pop material a new twist. She's put out a half dozen records and has honed her performing skills with weekly gigs at Chicago clubs such as the Green Mill Lounge.

At Sambuca, she and her band - drummer Eric Montzca, saxophonist Jim Galloreto and stand-up bass player Mike Arnopol - exchanged solos and moods, trading spells of precision with fluidity. She'd bang away at the piano, hitting a single note until she'd wrung every drop. Her hands moved like crab claws over the keys; every so often, she'd wipe the moisture onto her legs. Behind her, the band spun out riffs in swirls you could almost see curling in the air.

And then, right in the middle of her singing, she'd bend back and adjust her posture, going for a little stretch in between the shoulder blades - a merger of precision and informality, almost too smart for its own good.