Recording of September 2019: Higher

Patricia Barber: Higher
Patricia Barber, piano & vocals; Patrick Mulcahy, bass; Jon Deitemyer, drums; Neal Alger, acoustic guitar; Jim Gailloreto, tenor saxophone
ArtistShare AS01712 (CD). 2019, Patricia Barber, prod.; Martha Feldman, assoc. prod.; Jim Anderson, rec. and mixing eng.; Bob Ludwig, mastering eng. DDD. TT: 55:18
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

As a singer and writer, Patricia Barber has never been easy to define. In the audiophile world, she's too often defined—and her brilliance obscured—by her ubiquity at audio shows and her regrettable membership in a sorority of generic, well-recorded "female vocalists." But in what idiom?

Most of Barber's early work was obviously jazz, and today she continues to perform straight-ahead jazz on Monday nights at Chicago's Green Mill, where she has appeared for decades. Over time, though, her studio work has shifted toward meticulously accompanied poetry, especially on the albums Verse and Mythologies, and she has been keeping company with opera singers and classical music scholars.

It seems natural that a writer and performer of such songs would eventually choose to compose art songs suitable for either jazz or classical performers. Higher begins with the eight songs of Barber's cycle Angels, Birds and I, an early version of which she performed with opera diva Renée Fleming in Chicago, Washington DC, and New York City in 2015. On Higher, we get hints of Fleming's approach in the two versions of Barber's slyly humorous "The Opera Song," the first sung and played by Barber and her musicians, the second by soprano Katherine Werbiansky, accompanied by Barber on piano.

The first three songs of Angels, Birds and I are dedicated, respectively, to Fleming ("Muse"), Barber's teacher and mentor Shulamit Ran ("Surrender"), and musicologist/University of Chicago professor Martha Feldman ("Pallid Angel"), who is also Barber's wife. There's a careful balance here: "Muse" is a nakedly intimate lesbian love song ("Such sweet entanglement/Fingers, legs, and hips"); in "The Albatross Song," a woman leaves her rich, stylish, bourgeois husband for a man with "bedroom eyes" who is "more like a bird than a man." Here, she follows the tradition of countless classic art song composers, including Franz Schubert, who wrote songs in which men sang the roles of female protagonists and, in some cases, women sang men's roles.

Beyond any talk of who is what and in whose arms they lie, Angels, Birds and I is revelatory, a cycle sung in an oft-declamatory, measured style by a creator whose surface coolness barely conceals deeply felt sensuality and passion. It is too soon to call it a masterpiece, even if it's tempting—Barber has written and recorded many great songs over a span of 30 years. But it is not too soon to proclaim it a cycle with considerable power to move and provoke.

Barber fills out the recording with four tracks: the above-mentioned "The Opera Song," Woody Herman, Johnny Mercer, and Ralph Burns' "Early Autumn," Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster's "Secret Love," and Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way." The topics are in line with Angels, Birds and I, and the treatment is echt Barber. Those, like me, who think of "Secret Love" as a soppy, substandard song sung by Doris Day accompanied by—Lord have mercy— harp and strings will be surprised by Barber's transformation of it, just as she has transformed other standards and songs over the years. Think: "She's a Lady" from Modern Cool.

Higher bears the earmarks of an audiophile classic: music of substance in excellent sound. While it has so far been released only in Red Book resolution, it was recorded, mixed, and mastered in DXD (24/352.8), so there's hope for a higher-rez version. Jim Anderson, Barber's longtime recording engineer, has received 26 Grammy nominations and 10 awards, and Bob Ludwig, the mastering engineer, has received 15 Grammy nominations, 11 Grammy awards, and two Latin Grammys. Together, they've created a pristine production in which every whisper and unique color receives due attention. Heard on a high-end system—I summoned Roon to stream files to a dCS Rossini stack and then to Accustic Arts Mono II monoblocks and Wilson Audio Alexia 2's, using premium cabling and accoutrements—the detail, color, texture, and silence between notes can be counted on to reward the pains we take to assemble a perfectionist audio system.

The CD booklet includes a superbly written "Appreciation" of Barber's legacy by former Stereophile music editor Robert Baird, quoting jazz authority and Stereophile contributor Tom Conrad, who has called Barber's voice "a pure dark whisper straight up from the soul."

This review only hints at the mysteries that Barber probes with typical intellect, musicianship, and heart with her pure dark whisper. This is perfect for low light and quiet contemplation. Higher deserves more than a listen. —Jason Victor Serinus