No doubt she has heard this before, but the Chicago singer-pianist Patricia Barber could quite easily be mistaken for Diana Krall’s darker, edgier sister. There is the same smoky quality to her voice, the same faint air of reticence on the bandstand.
Yet for every ten listeners who have heard of Krall — an excellent singer in her own right — probably only one has encountered Barber, despite the fact that her last live album, A Fortnight in France, was one of the most inspired vocal discs of the past decade.
The French have already fallen under her spell. Here, she is still pretty much an unknown quantity, which presumably explains why, in her debut at Ronnie Scott’s, she was playing the early show ahead of that trusty mainstream saxophonist Scott Hamilton.
Next time she pays a visit — and she surely must, as soon as possible — Barber deserves top billing. Inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Barber’s extraordinary new CD, Mythologies, isn’t the usual jazz-club fare. At first I feared she might be too forbidding a presence, yet even a casual listener would soon be won over by her seductive voice, her forceful soloing and, not least, her immaculate quartet arrangements. I don’t believe there is a more satisfying working group in jazz at the moment. Neal Alger’s guitar, in particular, is a thing of beauty, incorporating sinewy blues-rock textures à la John Scofield.
Barber cleverly mixed songs from the latest album with a smattering of standards. Her gently swinging treatment of the old hit Witchcraft, complete with a playful, Basie-esque ending, sat perfectly amid the hallucinatory evocations of characters from the classical past. Morpheus offered an irresistible journey to the edge of a dream world, while Hunger was delivered virtually as recitative, Alger’s guitar tracking Barber’s voice note for note.
When Barber introduced that Ellington-era warhorse, Caravan, the heart sank a little — here was a tune that has been played to death by too many indifferent bands over the years. The quartet, happily, transformed it in a bravura display. At the close, Barber caressed a path through the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood. Utterly hypnotic. The jazz concert of the year, by a long way.