August 25th, 2002

A Joni Mitchell-esque Breakthrough for Patricia Barber

Patricia Barber
Blue Note/Premonition
Despite critical raves and a following of dedicated fans, Patricia Barber has not broken through to the level of public awareness achieved by such shooting stars as Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Jane Monheit.

It's unlikely that she is overly concerned about the more visible competition, or that she would in any way diminish what she has to say to reach a larger audience. Even in her last album, "Nightclub" (released in 2000), a program of familiar standards, she transformed the songs through her multilayered aesthetics.

In her new CD, "Verse" (Blue Note), Barber traverses even more compelling territory with her first collection of all original material. It is a stunning musical accomplishment.

It may be the kiss of death to say that this remarkable recording is important, that it sets a level of creativity and musical quality that is beyond definition, even though it could only have come from the world of jazz. But hopefully not. Because there is so much to hear in this brilliant collection of songs, that it offers revelatory experiences with each repeated hearing.

In the past, I've questioned Barber's over-generosity with her musicians, if only because she seemed at times to diminish her presence by offering them so much space. Here, however, accompanied by a sterling ensemble that includes the particularly vivid presence of guitarist Neal Alger and trumpeter David Douglas, Barber crafts their participation in a fashion that integrates every musical and lyrical element into a unified statement.

Barber has described the songs on "Verse" as her homage to Joni Mitchell. The link is understandable, given the artful blend of lyrics and music, the literary quality of the words, and the vantage point on relationships that ranges from dark longing to sardonic irony.

But there was never any doubt that Mitchell's music grew from folk roots, enhanced by a perceptive ear for engaging harmonies. Barber, like Mitchell, enriches her words with metaphors that are intellectually and emotionally stimulating. A few examples from different songs: "If I were blue, like David Hockney's pool"; "I could eat your words, melt objection with stimulation, simmer truth with prevarication"; "Syllogistically speaking, if 'A' is you and 'B' is me, logical progression will lead to 'C.' "

But Barber's melodic phrases, the arc of her melodies and the propulsiveness of her rhythms are the product of the musical sophistication of jazz.

Equally worth noting, although Barber's piano work plays a modest role on the album, her solo on "You Gotta Go Home" firmly stands on its own as an improvisational expression, and other tunes--"Lost in This Love," "Pieces" and "Regular Pleasures"--employ offbeat meters with coherence and logic.

Add to all of the above the intriguingly dark timbre of Barber's low alto voice, and the way she remains in touch with the music while dipping into provocative thoughts and story lines, and the result is an exquisite, not-to-be-missed creative adventure.

In her description of the work, Barber writes that "the task of any artist is to create a ruthlessly individual vision of the art from the inside out." With "Verse," she has taken a giant step in that direction.