Patricia Barber is coming to town. The town - Toronto – the date June 20th, part of a tout that takes her to across North America and over to France, Portugal, Germany and The Ukraine. If you catch her you'll get a chance to hear songs from her new self-penned album Smash. Her own distinctive blend of jazz and pop, now further on the jazz spectrum than ever, is so well captured on disc, courtesy of the recording and mixing skills of Professor Jim Anderson that they are audiophile favorites, and Smash is no exception.
What's different this time is the label – Concord Jazz replacing premonition and Blue Note, and the absence of the unconventional and unforgettable covers that grabbed so much attention in earlier years – "Inch Worm", "Ode to Billy Joe", "A Taste of Honey" and "Manha de Carnaval" on the Cafe Blue album for example. On that classic disc Barber penned only 5 of the 12 tracks. But anyone listening to her composition "Too Rich for my Blood" for the first time could have spotted her incredible promise as a song writer. So here we have a new quartet, 12 new compositions of great originality, all bearing her unmistakable footprints. Several are experimental, forming what she describes as a "syllabic song series", where the beats on each line follow a rigid pattern. So "The Swim" has two syllables per line, "Spring Song" has three and "The Wind Song" six. "The Swim" is the most successful of these, a really haunting song picture.
"So fleet / so like / goodbye / with you / at once / too much / too fast / to good / to end / too soon / my love / next time / let's lie"
Barber is quite an inventive pianist, as she demonstrates best on "Bashful", an instrumental number which shows not just her strength as a modern jazz musician but also highlights the understated tightness of her new quartet. John Kregor features on guitar and Larry Kohut on bass with Jon Deitemyer on drums underpinning it all with his marching band influenced rhythms.
There is an enormous variety of music here. Take the title song and moving lament "Smash", a little reminiscent of "Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover". The chorus reads "So this is the sound / of a heart breaking / this is the sound of the red on the road". But after all the words have passed her rage and confusion bursts into strange discordant heavy metal sounds. But in the very next track "Redshift", which is a personal favorite, we are gently seduced by Brazilian rhythms in sharp contrast to the high science of the lyrics. "Einstein would concur / trajectories are curved / things aren't what they were or where we left them / Heisenberg was right / fixing speed and site / for all who love are blind is unwise and uncertain".
As a production this cardboard sleeved disc leaves a few ‘t's uncrossed. Some of the lyrics are inaccurate: for example "Devil's Food" begins "Look at you / Look at me" but the order is reversed on the insert. But where it counts, in the micing and mixing, there can be no complaints. The sound quality is a match to her previous studio albums and that is high praise indeed.
Barber's voice, often barely raised above a whisper, is pitch perfect and full of aching and poetry, while her lyrics could challenge Leonard Cohen and leave most others behind. The music is no mere accompaniment to the lyric but often plays against it to produce odd effects. We're a long way from Lennon and McCartney here. It's a challenging and melancholic offering from a very serious artist, a disc that will repay repeated listening and possibly transport you to new regions.
P.S. Patricia, if you're reading this, I would also welcome a new album of standards.