Verbal cunning is the hallmark of this release, Barber's first collection devoted entirely to original music. Her passion for the poet's tools of allusion, metaphor, imagery and teeming wordplay, while often expressed in hushed tones, is unmistakable and disarming, amusing and evocative. Here's just a small sample of her lighthearted touch, from "Lost in This Love," wherein Barber uses a wash of rapid queries to conjure the vertiginous sensation of someone falling head over heels: "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 of my eye?"
In some ways "Verse" is a throwback to the pop reign of Cole Porter and his ilk, when sophisticated lyrics were in fashion -- even the CD's title appears to allude to the pre-rock custom of composing an out-of-tempo verse to slyly establish a mood. Though her lyrics can seem unabashedly highbrow at times, referencing everyone from Baudelaire to David Hockney, more often Barber comes up with something that scans smart and wry. Or, in the case of "I Could Eat Your Words," a sort of postmodern update of the pop standard "Teach Me Tonight," something smart and seductive: "Psychologically speaking if the student can teach / The teacher can learn / Let's leave the thinking to me."
Barber's lyrics also suggest the influence of more contemporary artists, from jazz lyricists Jon Hendricks, Mose Allison and Dave Frishberg to pop tunesmiths Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell. It's hard to imagine any of these composers -- or most of their fans, for that matter -- finding much fault with the level of song craft Barber displays throughout "Verse." There's even an Allison-inspired composition, the acerbic "You Gotta Go Home," which bluntly tallies an ex-lover's shortcomings: "A poet's thing for drama / The charm of the insane / You've taken all my money, now just get on the plane," Barber admonishes. "You gotta go home."
On yet another level, "Verse" is a product of its times, influenced by the atmospheric shadings, rhythmic displacements, odd time signatures and, occasionally, tart dissonances of cutting-edge jazz. So deftly orchestrated are the small-combo arrangements that it's worth listening to the album through at least once as you fix on the way trumpeter Dave Douglas, guitarist Neal Alger, drummer Joey Baron and their compatriots colorfully augment Barber's piano musings.
Will "Verse" receive the airplay it deserves and allow Barber to move, like Wilson, Krall and Monheit before her, from the club scene to larger venues? Probably not. For all its popular antecedents, its ties to the Great American Songbook and the ensuing wave of whimsical, bop-inspired wordplay, Barber's take on jazz has a distinctly literary quality -- not the sort of thing that tends to hold large crowds in thrall.
And yet it seems even less likely that "Verse" will fail to charm its target audience and then some: listeners open to highly inventive forms of jazz expression.