The Final Come-On: Gorgeously icy, erotically steamy ... Patricia Barber's singing sends the mercury flying

October 15, 2004
By John L Walters

There's no shortage of good female jazz singers - there seems to be a new CD by one every other week - but the sexiest is Patricia Barber. I'm not talking about the glossy magazine norms of cleavage, lipstick and expensive photo sessions - it's all in the way she sounds. Chicago-based Barber has a voice that caresses and challenges and cajoles and taunts and teases every nuance of meaning from each ambiguous syllable. She plays great piano, too. Her songs are tantalising and opaque. On the page, the lyrics can look arch or over-intellectual; when she sings them live, as on her new album, A Fortnight in France (Blue Note, £12.99), they're intoxicating and seductive - film noir from the viewpoint of a postmodern femme fatale. Take, for example, the unfortunate fall guy of Gotcha:

Your edifice is starting to crack and peel
Your girlfriend is starting to panic and steal
Whatever's left of a small piece
Of a small pie
Of a small man
with a much smaller life.

Such words sketch out tense scenarios, power games and loveplay. You may not know what kind of relationship is being negotiated, but that's the thrill. I Could Eat Your Words, from her 2002 album Verse (Blue Note, £12.99), seems to portray a tutor-student tryst: "Simplicity can charm the intellectual beast/ A three-word phrase will suffice." Clues, with a gorgeously icy string arrangement by Cliff Colnot, is even more mysterious: "If time had a sense of justice/ Could we go back and make it right?"

The song Pieces, featured on both Verse and the new album, spells out a more destructive situation:

There's a piece on the chair
A piece in the hall
A nice piece of me
Stuck to the wall.

Like many of Barber's songs, it has clever, asymmetrical rhythms. Yet Barber's time signatures have a purpose that's more emotional than intellectual. Her fives and sevens are like fractured versions of more even metres; the effect is that of a teasing seducer, tugging her lover towards her, then pushing him (or her) away. Played live in Paris, the newer version of Pieces is steamier, the erotic tension between nervous verse and slow, bluesy bridge more palpable.

Barber also includes a sneak preview of a new song cycle: Whiteworld augments the tiny number of songs that feature the words "pontoon plane". Another example (perhaps its inspiration) is Joni Mitchell's sublime travelogue Black Crow, jazzily reinterpreted earlier this year by Diana Krall. However, Barber's protagonist, a "first world Oedipus" in khaki who makes "a splash in a pontoon plane", is the villain. Barber's highly strung arrangement is a little like James Brown at 78rpm thanks to guitarist Neal Alger, who is superbly sympathetic throughout the album. When it comes to singing standards, Barber invests time-worn lyrics - Norwegian Wood, Call Me, Laura - with the arousing intelligence that informs her own songs. Not to everyone's taste, it is decidedly adult music.