October 22, 2007

Patricia Barber Does Ovid
The singer-songwriter translates tales from 'Metamorphoses' into lush, vigorous jazz at the Getty Villa.

Patricia Barber's "Mythologies" is a jazz rarity -- a concept-driven cycle of songs written by an equally uncommon entity, a jazz singer-songwriter.

Although Barber performed only a few of the pieces from "Mythologies" Saturday at the Getty Villa, there was enough to display the success with which she has accomplished the remarkable task of adapting Ovid's classic "Metamorphoses" to the contemporary vernacular of jazz song.

The key word is "adapting," since Barber's response to Ovid has obviously been inspirational rather than literal.

In the program, she noted that her "modern day Orpheus is a gardener" and that she "grafted the Nina Simone story onto the Icarus story."

Other songs took equally transformative directions: Barber's sung line, "Unrequited love is what I know of love," so appropriate for the Pygmalion story; the re-creation of the Hunger character, from thin, voracious and mean to chic, glamorous and mean.

This may sound literary rather than musical or even jazz-like. But all those elements were present, all coming together in a manner so compatible that connective links were utterly indiscernible.

And the most impressive aspect of Barber's performance was that it was -- that it could only have been -- the work of a jazz artist, through and through.

Working with the musicians who accompanied her on the "Mythologies" album -- guitarist Neal Alger, tenor saxophonist Jim Gailloreto, bassist Michael Arnopol and drummer Eric Montzka -- Barber's warm voice, her extraordinarily lush piano harmonies and her cool, floating rhythms brought life and vigor to her additionally intriguing takes on Orpheus, Oedipus and Morpheus.

The only reservation about this illuminating performance traced to Barber's decision to intersperse a few jazz standards -- from Fats Waller, Miles Davis and Antonio Carlos Jobim -- among the "Mythologies" pieces. If she felt a need to otherwise establish her jazz credibility, it really wasn't necessary, and the time would have been better spent exploring more segments from "Mythologies," which is an important jazz work in its own right.

Like Joni Mitchell -- an obvious reference point for some of the songs -- Barber has taken the genre that is her natural form of expressiveness into dazzling new arenas of lyrical creativity.