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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1298

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Patricia Barber: Verse
by George Graham

(Premonition/Blue Note 39856 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/9/2002)

The chanteuse, the somewhat romantic female vocalist, has certainly made a comeback on the music scene in recent years. From commercial pop music to jazz, women singing with a certain degree of elegance have captured the attention of music fans, and also the notice of record companies, since it seems that almost every other jazz CD release is by a female vocalist. And some jazz-based singers, such as Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, and Jane Monheit are enjoying commercial success beyond the jazz charts. The chanteuse is, more or less by definition, a singer rather than a songwriter. This is especially true in jazz, where the performance, improvisation and interpretation are the keys, while the material usually consists of familiar great American standard songs from Tin Pan Alley.

This week we have a stunning new album from a sultry jazz-based singer who also writes some of the most literate, and downright intriguing lyrics you'll hear. She is Chicago-based pianist, vocalist and composer Patricia Barber, whose new CD, her first of all-original music, is called Verse.

The daughter of jazz saxophonist Floyd "Shim" Barber, who had played in the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Patricia Barber studied classical piano, as well as psychology at the University of Iowa, then returned to her native Chicago area in 1984 to play jazz, performing regular gigs at Windy City jazz clubs, including the Gold Star Sardine Bar and the Green Mill. She has recorded seven albums, going back to 1989, with her debut Split, and including Café Blue, Nightclub and Modern Cool. A fine pianist, Ms. Barber was known for both for her performances of jazz standards, and her distinctive, often unexpected treatments of rock songs, such as the Doors' Light My Fire or Sonny & Cher's The Beat Goes On. But interspersed among the rock and jazz tunes were some original compositions, usually with lyrical sophistication that recalled the beat poets of the 1950s, who were often associated with jazz.

Now Ms. Barber has gathered together ten songs she wrote over the past three years or so into the new collection, with the appropriate title Verse. And like the most recent efforts by Cassandra Wilson and Norah Jones, this is a CD that is not strictly a jazz album, and will likely have appeal beyond the core jazz audience. Ms. Barber served as her own producer, and in that capacity decided on a more guitar-oriented sound, which she relates in an interview, was a bit of a disappointment to her persona as a pianist.

She is joined by a regular group which includes both long-time associates and musicians with whom she had not previously recorded. In the former category is bassist Michael Arnapol, who has appeared on previous Patricia Barber releases and who puts in a stellar performance on Verse, and guitarist Neal Alger who has been a part of her touring band for a while, but who had not previously recorded with Ms. Barber. Also appearing prominently is trumpeter Dave Douglas, who is a jazzy foil to the folky and rocky sounds of Alger's guitar. The drummer for most of the CD is jazz veteran Joey Baron, who brings along a large bass drum that he plays subtly, but which adds a very distinctive touch. Making an appearance on one track is a string section, playing an unusual part.

While her instantly appealing and often downright sexy voice is the sonic focus of the CD, the most striking aspect of Verse is encapsulated in its title. Her lyrics are some of the most absorbing I have heard on record in a long time. She writes in part from experience, often metaphorically, and takes on some familiar subjects by casting an entirely new light on them. But most impressive is her sheer power of language. She puts words and phrases into songs the likes of which have rarely been heard, and at a more poetic level than some of the best folkies. She is also not without a sense of dry wit, whom she credits Mose Allison for inspiring, and even says she spent a long time studying cookbooks for prose style for one particular song.

The group on the CD can range from a straight jazz combo to a folky guitar dominated sound, to a duo with only bass and drums backing Ms. Barber. Opening Verse is a track that sets the lyrical pace for the CD, The Moon. The subject of the song, of course, has been addressed thousands of times. But Ms. Barber says she asked some of her academic friends to send her lesser-known literature on the moon, and also did some re-reading of Shakespeare and Greek mythology. She writes from the first person, as the Moon speaking. Musically it's one of the more angular pieces on the CD. <<>>

More guitar-dominated is Lost in This Love, with Alger's acoustic instrument being prominent. It highlights Ms. Barber's fine writing, with lyrics inspired by a personal feeling of being lost, which led to a number of the interesting questions posed in the song. <<>>

One of the most intriguing composition is Clues which Ms. Barber calls "scary." She said it's about "intuiting that something is wrong, but not quite understanding why." A few members of the Chicago Symphony were enlisted for the unconventional, atmospheric orchestral arrangement by Cliff Colnot, of the Chicago Civic Orchestra. The fine lyrics prove both powerful and mysterious. <<>>

The closest thing to a sultry jazz ballad is I Could Eat Your Words, on which Ms. Barber returns to her piano, and trumpeter Dave Douglas makes a memorable appearance. Once again, Ms. Barber's lyrics are remarkable for their linguistic richness. Ms. Barber said the song is about a fantasy of seducing one's teacher, while she turned to cookbooks for metaphoric inspiration. <<>>

Another thoroughly original song-concept comes on Regular Pleasures, a celebration of the routine, and a wistful longing for a simpler, more regular life. The quirky 5/4 composition features accompaniment mainly by just bass and drums. <<>>

Among the most powerful sets of lyrics is The Fire about a woman for whom a relationship has lost its satisfaction, but she goes on faking it. <<>>

Ms. Barber credits witty jazz songwriter Mose Allison, and his ability to make musical insults amusing, as the influence behind You Gotta Go Home, which she said was inspired by a real situation in her life -- getting into a relationship with a French woman, who proceeded to overstay her welcome. <<>>

The album ends with a beautiful ballad called If I Were Blue, which takes the common metaphor in songs to a more literal meaning of blue. Ms. Barber's piano and Neal Alger's guitar provide the melancholy accompaniment. <<>>

Patricia Barber's reputation is as a jazz pianist and vocalist, but she has created one of the most intriguing singer-songwriter albums you're likely to hear. Her new sixth CD Verse is musically eclectic, and beautifully performed by her group, and especially by Ms. Barber herself, with her remarkable vocals. But perhaps even more memorable about the album is Ms. Barber's level of wordcraft. She addresses common subjects in a way, and with a level of sheer linguistic virtuosity few, even the most literate of folkies, can equal. The result is a striking recording of great subtlety that can be enjoyed on several different levels.

Our grade for sound quality is an unequivocal "A." The instrumentation, including the rich texture of Michael Arnopol's acoustic bass, and the room shaking sound of Joey Baron's bass drum, is outstanding, as is the recorded treatment of Ms. Barber's vocals, which have a particularly intimate sound. Even the dynamic range is commendable.

Patricia Barber may be known as a chanteuse, but Verse proves that she is also a songwriter of impressive prowess. Her CD is a truly remarkable record.

(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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