Saturday, October 25, 2003, Final Edition
By Mike Joyce

The blues were knotty and abstract, the ballads stark and haunting. The swing pulse was light and easy, the original lyrics smart, barbed and funny. In other words, singer-songwriter and pianist Patricia Barber was in typical form at the Kennedy Center's KC Jazz Club on Thursday night.

The Chicago-bred musician and her three band mates showcased mood pieces that borrow from a curious assortment of influences. During the quartet's opening set, there were allusions aplenty -- to beat poetry and hoary British folk, to sensuous Brazilian rhythms and chopped chord funk, to torchy pop and unfettered swing, to acoustic interplay and contemporary rock instrumentation. At one point, when Barber's band was churning out a vintage R&B groove, the pianist began splashing dissonances over the backbeat until the arrangement briefly sounded like "Ramsey Lewis meets Thelonious Monk." At other times, bassist Michael Arnopol, guitarist Neal Alger and drummer Eric Montzka stood out individually, adding striking colors and textured accents to the music.

"Modern Cool" and "Verse," Barber's recent albums, inspired some of the performances, including the noir-ish and witty vignette "Touch of Trash." But there were engaging twists as well, including an instrumental version of "Witchcraft" that quietly referenced Count Basie's brand of no-frills piano. Barber also unveiled "White World," a new tune drawn from a song cycle she's working on. A sharply satirical broadside, the song suggested her next recording won't disappoint those who enjoy hearing her vent in clever and cunning ways.