Ladies Singing the Blues (And More), But Their Way

We all have a certain repetition obsession about patterns that helped determine our lives. Barbra Streisand is probably compelled to give farewell concert tours because she has been conducting farewell tours of musical forms since her career began.

Those first fabulous recordings: the brazen New York comedy and heartbreak-kid longing, the voice whose weird clarity had something in common with electronic music, singing Harold Arlen, Fats Waller, Leonard Bernstein and then, thanks to "Funny Girl," giving us lessons in living theater history. Every girl (and plenty of boys) in love with show business spent hours alone in their rooms imitating every intake of breath or New York inflection, adding it to their impassioned Judy Garland imitations. Ms. Streisand and Garland embodied femininity as pure talent, ardor and eccentric comedy.

But Ms. Streisand was not of her time, and that has been a huge problem for music-theater and jazz singers since the early 1960's. This began to change only recently, the surest sign the mass- market success of Cassandra Wilson and Diana Krall. Now I'm hoping the same success will come to Patricia Barber, a terrific singer and pianist from Chicago.

None of these three women have made the kinds of musical adjustments Ms. Streisand did to stay contemporary. Rock-pop, folk and soul were making her a prematurely divine relic. And once "Funny Girl" had made her a star, she was clearly not willing to stay in the shrinking world of the Broadway musical or the smaller world of cabaret.

So she adapted to her time without ever being quite of it. She sang a Laura Nyro song; she starred in a generic pop remake of "A Star Is Born"; she had hit duets with the disco goddess Donna Summer and that modern shlock balladeer Neil Diamond. Call them her versions of one-night stands. Frank Sinatra certainly sat up and took notice.

Ms. Streisand made her choices, as all performers do. But such choices are also a question of cultural timing, and that's partly luck. Singers like Ms. Wilson and Ms. Krall have profited from the retro crossover dreams of the 1980's and 90's, when Linda Ronstadt sang Tin Pan Alley classics to Nelson Riddle arrangements, rock stars did Cole Porter songs, and Natalie Cole resuscitated her career by recording a posthumous duet with her father on his old hit "Unforgettable."

But popular singers have to embody something the culture craves: from the past yet modern; alluding to the future but comprehensible. Billie Holiday reconfigured hipness and tragedy. Sinatra made manly swagger inseparable from manly sorrow.

There are echoes of the wily young Nat Cole in Diana Krall's music. (Her first album was a tribute to his early days and ways.) And she gives off an aura of self-contained yearning that evokes the image of 50's jazz singers like Chris Connor and Helen Merrill. But she has a cool luster that feels contemporary, as if she were deciding how much of herself to reveal.

Cassandra Wilson's voice is layered and shadowed. It has a gospel bel canto line, and the bop- inspired improvisations (think Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter) that make the voice a wordless instrument. Her manner is sensuous but slightly removed (not chill, removed) in a 21st-century space where the African visions and hippie dreams of the 60's meet.

This is what Patricia Barber has: adventurous piano playing (she is not a woman who just accompanies herself gracefully), a low-vibrato alto on perpetual rhythm and timbre alert and smart songs about the way we think and live, not just about the way we love. Put that together with her black suit jacket, pants and (at times) beret, and we have a beat musician and a bop intellectual. (Let's not forget that bop innovators like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were intellectuals, just as beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg strove to put their instincts above their intellects.)

I saw Ms. Barber, accompanied by Michael Arnopol on bass and Tom Hipskind on drums, at Joe's Pub last week. (Joe's Pub, at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, is one of the best cabarets in New York. Poets, performance artists, comedians and musicians all perform there.) I also have her four CD's.

Such invention and intensity when she performed. No chitchat. No retreads. Of the songs I remembered from her CD's, she changed arrangements and added improvisations. (I had never heard her use the acidic, plucked sound that comes from holding one of the piano's strings while the key is struck.)

On her first three recordings, "Cafe Blue," "Modern Cool" and "Companion," she concentrated on her own songs and, like Ms. Wilson, on treating pop, rock or modern folk songs with jazz respect. Say yes to "The Beat Goes On" by Sonny and Cher: it's a happening tune again. The chord changes of Bobbie Gentry's country-blues song "Ode to Billie Joe" are altered just enough to deny us the resolutions we expect, and the familiar tale sheds its folkloric charm and strikes deep.

Ms. Barber is witty, too. On CD and in person she does an irresistible, finger-snapping, femme- macho version of "She's a Lady," that 1980's paean an to the male narcissist's trophy girl:
Well, she's all you'd ever want
She's the kind I'd like to flaunt
And take to dinner.
Well, she always knows her place
She's got style, she's got grace
She's a winner.
Is it all coming back to you now?
But enough of that song, written by Paul Anka and made famous by Tom Jones. A few examples of Ms. Barber's style. She sings with her hands behind her back, fingers splayed out. And she sometime plays in bare feet. It isn't show-offy. She's a true eccentric.

"Let It Rain" is perfect-pitched blues minus all touches of fake earthiness or period simplicity.
Can't you make those downtown hopping,
grocery shopping,
perky, plodding, cheerful folks
go away
c'mon bring on the flood
let my soul have its day in the mud
let it rain
"Postmodern Blues" is a lament for modern thought and art, from Marx to Mayakovsky, Isadora Duncan to CÚzanne. And "Company" is a satiric list of intolerably chic contemporary pastimes, from "a cell-phone conversation/short enough to slip in the cracks of/the call-waiting generation" to "French philosophy/deconstructive obscurity/formalized, canonized and dignified by the university."

Her new CD, "Nightclub" (Blue Note/Premonition), is all standards, and not one of them sounds remotely standardized, not even "Bye Bye Blackbird" or "Autumn Leaves." "Bye Bye Blackbird" has a great bass groove. Who would have thought it? "Nightclub" has welcome quirks, too: a sweet, wry "A Man and a Woman" for instance. You can admit you love the song when you're caught off guard like this. Also, two songs that Ray Charles made famous versions of, "Just for a Thrill" and "You Don't Know Me," which reflect nothing of Mr. Charles and everything of Ms. Barber.

This is the kind of art we need to be on the lookout for everywhere. The 21st century has started. We can't afford to be left behind.