MUSIC.COM
August 2002
By Wayne Donnelly

CD REVIEW

Patricia Barber
Verse
Blue Note/Premonition
Rejoice, Barberites! (Barberians?) After four long years of waiting, Patricia Barber gives us her first complete album of original songs (that's right -- no covers this time) since her 1998 masterpiece Modern Cool. Companion, recorded live, and the superb standards collection Nightclub have provided welcome musical nourishment in the meantime, but this writer and many other fans have been waiting eagerly for this one.

I got very excited when I saw the title of this CD. No other jazz artist I know can match PB's sensitivity to and command of language, and the title Verse promises uncommon and challenging lyrics. The fun begins right away, with the opening track, "Lost in This Love." Over a surging bossa nova beat, PB sings:

Where is the green in the leaf?
Where is the movement in the molecules?
Where is the up in the beat?
Where is the thrill in the chill of the night?
Where is the bee in the sting?
When did the Earth lose circumference?
When did the map lose relief?
Where is the salt in the tear in my eye?

And it gets even better in subsequent stanzas. Clever wordplay? Absolutely. But more, too. Allusions to the sciences, to emotion, combined in the last line, suggest perhaps that the certainties that supported the last century are not so certain in this new one. I can't say I disagree.

Listening to "Lost in This Love" and elsewhere I thought about another favorite, the multimedia/performance artist Laurie Anderson. Although their artistic end products are unique and quite different, I think these two share many qualities, beginning with their common penchant for irony. Each has a remarkably acute ear for the language of our times, be it of the street, popular media, or literature and philosophy, and the ability to deconstruct familiar idioms and recombine them so as to force us to think about them in fresh ways. Both can weave emotion, intellect and the physical into metaphysical verbal tapestries. (In "If I Were Blue," PB sings: "if I were blue/like David Hockney's pool/dive into me and glide/under a California sky/inside your mouth and nose and eyes am I" -- blue progresses line by line from mood to color to water -- and in the tradition of metaphysical poetry, the last line suggests a more transcendent merge.) If you enjoy working through PB's lyrics here, you may want to check out Anderson's brilliant Bright Red CD.

But I digress. I could go on citing the many ways PB interweaves thought and emotion and physicality, but I'll content myself with just one more. In "I Could Eat Your Love" (how's that for a double entendre?), she sings:

I'll drink remorse like a cabernet
champagne with indecision
guilt like garlic
needs to sauté with cream, butter, and wine

Verse is a well earned title, for the songs have the elusiveness and allusiveness, the ambiguity, the command of metaphor, the resonance of meaning, and, importantly, the sound of poetry. In these times when a teenager with long hair and a guitar can be dubbed a poet -- even if only by her PR flack -- it is instructive to be reminded that the real thing does still exist.

The sound on Modern Cool is founded on Barber's powerful piano and the authoritative bass of her longtime colleague Michael Arnopol. That recording has a deep bass and overall weight that I find very appropriate to the songs and to PB's smoky vocals. Verse, also recorded by engineer Jim Anderson with Barber producing, paints a very different sonic picture -- lighter in texture and somewhat more transparent. On first hearing it, I was distressed to hear so little piano. PB plays piano on only about half the songs, sometimes only briefly, and the instrument is mixed much further back than on Modern Cool. But what there is, is choice. I am particularly smitten by "If I Were Blue," in which the only instruments are the piano and Neal Alger's sensitive guitar; the song closes the album like a hushed benediction. As she did with the Hammond B3 on Companion, PB here offers some tasty work on the Fender Rhodes. Arnopol's bass stays mostly in the background this time around.

Dave Douglas's terse, evocative muted trumpet, so valuable on Modern Cool, is again featured on Verse. This guy can say a lot with only a few notes, but when he gets a chance to stretch out -- as in his solo on "I Could Eat Your Love" -- he dazzles. Alger and drummer Joey Baron (Eric Montzka on "You Gotta Go Home") are in great form throughout, and the ensemble work, as usual with PB, is fabulous -- intricate and imaginative.

I think the jazz vocal recording of the year has come. For anyone who is already a Barber fan, buying Verse is a no-brainer -- just save your pennies until Aug. 27 and go get this baby. But it seems to me that virtually any reasonably mature music lover -- of jazz, of great singing, of interesting lyrics or whatever -- can find plenty to enjoy here. And, if you don't feel like working at the musical poetry, just relax and -- what else? -- enjoy the music.

Enjoyment: 100

Sound Quality: 93