October 2002
By John Ephland


Patricia Barber
Blue Note/Premonition
She’s got a voice that falls between talking and whispering. Singer Patricia Barber’s quippy, lyrical style has married a taste for the cerebral that’s given birth to something much more than charmed. Call it her own territory.

Like fellow Chicago vocalist Kurt Elling, Barber’s in love with words. Unlike Elling’s intriguing knack to “blare his care in a musical glare,” hers is more “let’s get so close we can’t focus.” It should, therefore, be no surprise that Barber’s new Verse is heavy on the lyrics. In fact, she’s so wrapped up in her words she doesn’t 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 Barber’s 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 Hargove’s 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 Barber’s strengths is her democratic spirit; she knows she doesn’t 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, he’s 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.

Barber’s 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, Krall’s version of “Peel Me A Grape” is tantalizing, even seductive; Barber’s 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; there’s nary a sustain to be found as she keeps her true feelings close to her chest/vest. Barber’s playing poker with the listener, and loving it.