Part Prince, part Porter, all art
January 12, 2005


Patricia Barber is often mentioned in the same breath with Diana Krall and Norah Jones because she is a jazz singer-pianist. But it would be more appropriate to talk about her in the same sentence with Prince.

While he is the most complete rock star ever, she is the most complete jazz artist today. Barber, 48, is a first-rate, fiercely intellectual songwriter, the closest thing we have to Cole Porter these days. She is an evocative, imaginative singer who gets inside the most familiar of songs. She is a hypercreative, expressive pianist who explores a variety of styles, moods and colors. And, like Prince, in concert she is pridefully unpredictable and uncommonly rewarding.

At the Dakota Jazz Club on Tuesday, Barber started, as always, by sitting at the grand piano and removing her shoes. Thereafter, she was not as prominent on the keys as she has been at her previous Dakota engagements. An aggressive, physical pianist, she was often more impressionistic or just silent, letting her bandmates extend the conversation that she usually started. With Barber, it's about making art, not about casting her as a star.

The Chicagoan seemed to be going for the kind of dark intimacy heard on her wonderful new CD, "Live: A Fortnight in France." Five of the eight pieces in Tuesday's opening 70-minute set were taken from the new disc. Her singing Gypsy-like "la-da-das" through clenched teeth led into "Dansons la Gigue!," which suggested Charles Aznavour doing a lethargic, late-night French-Brazilian art-song. The familiar "Laura" was done slow and dreamy, about as delicate as Barber gets.

Her Leonard Cohen-like reading of "If I Should Lose You," a Frank Sinatra favorite, and the intoxicating "Touch of Trash," her own 1999 number recast with some Tom Waits-like bent guitar, fit the "Fortnight" mood perfectly. "Trash" had the ideal irony for the erudite band leader, as she closed the song about mismatched lovers singing "watching us turn absolutely nothing into form."

Barber leads a creative quartet, players who listen to each other as they make music. In fact, watching her actively listen to her colleagues -- she'd tap her fists to the beat, rub her fingers feverishly or sit with her mouth agape -- was almost as intriguing as hearing her play piano. "Crash," a "Fortnight" instrumental featuring each player prominently, was a bracing collision of fast and slow tempos that was almost as jarring as the encore, "Whiteworld," a diatribe about First World anthropology set to a guitar-driven funk groove.

If "Crash" was a roaring four-alarm fire, then Barber's wacky 11-minute treatment of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" was smoldering embers, eventually restoked by Barber's piano solo and Neal Alger's trippy guitar noodling. She didn't bother to change the gender of the lyrics, making it a lusciously lesbian reflection on love. Even in subtle ways, Barber, like Prince, always dares to push the envelope.