Barber's Passion Isn't Rare but Catching It Is

Enigmatic may be the best way to describe singer-pianist Patricia Barber. Blessed with a pliant, expressive voice, she sometimes minimizes its presence in favor of her piano playing. Capable of delivering compelling, dramatic interpretations of standard tunes, as well as her own multilayered originals, she diminishes their impact by dressing in black, appearing on dimly lit stages and assigning far too many long solo passages to her musical companions, bassist Michael Arnopol and drummer Ernie Adams.

All these qualities were present Monday when the critically praised, Chicago-based Barber surfaced for a single-night engagement at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood. Not surprisingly, she drew a capacity crowd, and--to raise yet another observation about the career of this determinedly original, immensely talented artist--the real question was why she was only booked into the Southland for a one-nighter, rather than a full week's run.

Enigmas, caveats and questions aside, Barber's performance was the work of an artist with a clear and persistent vision. So persistent, in fact, that both her style and her presentation manner have remained consistent with what she had to offer in her first Los Angeles appearance nearly a decade ago.

Now, as then, it was a vision whose coloration burst through the dark surroundings via the intimate link between her voice and her piano playing. Pitched around a low alto vocal range, she occasionally moved up into a keening wail, alternating its startling impact with blues-tinged melismas in her lower, darkly sensual phrases. And, always, her lines were supported by her piano--sometimes via simple chordal interjections, sometimes via harmony lines or, contrastingly, with mesmerizing ostinato repetitions.

The result was a set of interpretations in which she discovered rich, alternative renderings of such familiar items as "You Are My Sunshine," "All the Things You Are" and "Inchworm." Her purely instrumental numbers were equally adventurous; "Caravan," for example, emerged in an unexpected but rhythmically successful 5/4 version.

Every number was highlighted by Barber's physically passionate involvement with the music in full flower. Turning, twisting, hands in mobile action at all times, shifting feelings rapidly moving across her face, she--like Keith Jarrett--revealed a constant response to the music's shifting energies.

Why does such a potentially breakout talent--so clearly capable of stepping into the spotlight--insist upon cloaking herself in such veiled surroundings? It's hard to say, other than as an insistence upon remaining connected to the passion of art, to avoid the temptations of what Barber has described as "a dominant ideology of empty materialism." And she may have explained it best musically in one of her own songs, when she sang, "If this isn't jazz, it'll have to do, until the real thing comes along."