Like fellow Chicago vocalist Kurt Elling, Barbers in love with words. Unlike Ellings intriguing knack to blare his care in a musical glare, hers is more lets get so close we cant focus. It should, therefore, be no surprise that Barbers new Verse is heavy on the lyrics. In fact, shes so wrapped up in her words she doesnt seem to have much time or inclination, for her beloved piano. Too bad, for like Diana Krall, her piano can be just as important as her voice.
Along with Krall, only Cassandra Wilson shares Barbers original expression as a female vocalist. All three are fun to listen to, not the least of which is because they are doing so much to the material at hand. Especially Wilson and Barber, who almost reek of attitude and a passion to invent and who can write songs worth hearing again and again. And Barber is straight out of Peggy Lee and Shirley Horn, singers who get you in close, who know that the real fire burns slow and steady. You might say Barber has a corner on the parlor room esthetic.
On Verse, her first all original release (and fourth for Blue Note), Barber shows a real knack for bringing in players to complement her sound on record. Correction, improve it. While Horn has always worked well outside her trio format, her 1995 Meaning of the Blues, for example, serves as an object lesson of what not to do with a star in tow. Roy Hargoves guest turn with Horn finds him shadowing her to distraction; by contrast Barber smartly lets her man speak in conversation, Dave Douglas declarative yet intimate horn on these songs entering and exiting for maximum impact. To be sure, one of Barbers strengths is her democratic spirit; she knows she doesnt need to breathe all over the music, and her bandmates were picked for a reason. The other great standout here is guitarist Neal Alger; like Douglas, hes a first timer with Barber in the studio.
Every song, while maintaining, a cool posture, somehow manages to cook, traces of cynicism notwithstanding. Part of what, no doubt, has to do with her reliance on the blues, and some perky arrangements that have you tapping your feet. Both can be found on the opener, Lost In This Love, played in 7, built around a series of smart questions/lyrics and over before you know it. Clues follows close at hand and is a clear indication that Barber is not only cerebral, but a clever wordsmith as she rattles off yet another series of mysterious one-liners that would do any slam-poet good to hear (the edge of the blade/the black of the night/the sharp of the point/ the twist of the knife). The song also features effective, simple accompaniment from a group of Chicago Symphony Orchestra string players.
Barbers production mix is balanced, clear, even a little dreamy. Yes, this album is as much about verses and words as it is about grooves, swinging and otherwise. And those words might ruffle a few feathers. Sure, Kralls version of Peel Me A Grape is tantalizing, even seductive; Barbers own I Could Eat Your Words is downright unsettling, too close for comfort, a recipe for sexual chaos as she pulls out ever recipe in the cookbook for her teacher (I could eat your words/suck the salt from your erudition/light a fire under inhibition/season reason with a transitive verb). And all in that soft, sweetly menacing voice. Indeed, a clue to her method comes in her lack of attack, her clipped words and phrases; theres nary a sustain to be found as she keeps her true feelings close to her chest/vest. Barbers playing poker with the listener, and loving it.