Recordings of October 2012: Nightclub & Modern Cool

Patricia Barber: Nightclub & Modern Cool
Premonition 90763-1 (2 LPs). Patricia Barber, prod.; Michael Friedman, exec. prod.; Jim Anderson, eng.; Bob Ludwig, mastering; Doug Sax, mastering (LP). AAA? TT: 51:20
Performance ****
Sonics *****

Modern Cool
Premonition 90761-4 (BD-A). Patricia Barber, prod.; Michael Friedman, exec. & surround prod.; Jim Anderson, eng. & surround eng. Robert Gatley, asst. surround eng. ADD? TT: 67:49
Performance ****
Sonics *****

Much as the music world at large supremely values so-called original compositions (as if . . . but then that's a discussion for another day), it takes a special talent to make a song written by someone else—in common parlance, a cover—your very own. Take Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Alfie," from the 1966 film with Michael Caine in the title role. Recorded for the soundtrack by Cilla Black, and later cut by everyone from Babs and Bill Evans to the Delfonics and Sarah Vaughan—not to mention a pair of laughably bad versions from Cher—the song is nothing if not overexposed. Bacharach's own soaring arrangement for the film sticks in the world's collective head. For lesser performers, that alone would be more than enough to keep them well clear of trying to cover it.

Yet Chicago's Patricia Barber, at least in her late-'90s/early-'00s heyday, wasn't just any singer. With her leathery alto, her stealth piano playing, and her unique ability to emote without being emotional, she has a way with covers that puts her among the very greatest interpretive artists in jazz. On her sixth album, Nightclub, recorded and mixed by the great engineer and producer Jim Anderson, Barber re-creates in the studio the kind of smoky, downbeat set that, by 2000, she'd been playing for years at Chicago's Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. The album is dedicated to the Green Mill and to Barber's other regular Chicago venue, the Gold Star Sardine Bar.

One word often applied to Barber's style is austere, and it's intended as a compliment. While her voice doesn't soar or boom, her idiosyncratic phrasing is a fine, quiet art, and her work on acoustic piano is slow and penetrating, always with darkened edges. Her sleek, steady take on "Alfie," with her spare piano accompaniment, drummer Adam Nussbaum on brushes, and Charlie Hunter on eight-string guitar, falls into a breezy groove that works. Later on these four LP sides she stretches a hoary standard, "Autumn Leaves," into a positively ghostly experience, with able assistance from Marc Johnson's bass. Her cool detachment serves her well in "Summer Samba," which is elegant in the extreme.

Like most musicians who respect songwriting, Barber has always had a soft spot for Cole Porter—her most recent album is The Cole Porter Mix (2008). Here, her reading of "So in Love" is simultaneously touching and minor-key haunting. The "hit" here is "Bye Bye Blackbird," which shows a burst of playfulness that's rare for Barber. And the bonus track—a rarity for a reissue on vinyl—is a methodically paced "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" that adds a sexiness, if you will, to this usually boisterous holiday trifle.

In terms of quality and stupendous packaging, Premonition Records continues to outdo almost everyone in the deluxe-reissue game. The heft of Nightclub's glossy jacket is impressive. Pressed at RTI, in Camarillo, California, the 180gm LPs are opulent and sonically rich with exquisite detail in the higher frequencies, a wide, transparent soundstage, and a convincing rumble in the bass end.

Released simultaneously with the vinyl edition of Nightclub is a Blu-ray Disc of Barber's fourth album, Modern Cool (1998)—Premonition's first excursion into 5.1-channel surround sound. What follow are the thoughts of Stereophile's "Music in the Round" columnist, Kalman Rubinson, on this adventurous new addition to the Barber catalog.—Robert Baird

Patricia Barber's Modern Cool is an audiophile staple. Its enduring ubiquity is testament to its sound quality and general musical appeal, and I easily immersed myself in comparisons of the two-channel (24-bit/192kHz PCM) and 5.1-channel (24/96 dts-HD Master Audio) tracks of this completely remastered Blu-ray Audio edition with the stereo-only SACD/CD (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDSACD 2003). All were played in an Oppo BDP-95 universal Blu-ray player, which let me switch between the BD's stereo and surround tracks on the fly, with minimal interruption.

The good news is that, in two channels, the Blu-ray is superior to the SACD: more open and detailed, with stabler imaging and a more believable soundstage. The BD-A's low end is equally weighty but better defined—and, remarkably, Barber's voice sounds even more realistic in timbre and presence.

With the 5.1 tracks, I was struck by how much the already superb stereo soundstage opened up, with each of the instruments more clearly delineated. Striking, too, was the increased spaciousness and power in the bass, a well-known attribute of the original. There was some spill of percussion instruments into the rear channels, but, at least in "Constantinople," this was intentional.

However, Barber's voice and piano are not mixed into the center channel at all—except in "Constantinople," "Company," and "She's a Lady," where her voice is unsettlingly prominent. I much preferred her L/R voice on the other 5.1 tracks, but unfortunately it lacked the presence it has on the two-channel track. The occasional trumpet or guitar, mono-mixed into the center channel, also stuck out.

Overall, I loved the 5.1 track for its convincing soundstage and bass power, but the clear winner here is the 24/192 two-channel track.—Kalman Rubinson

Et Quelle's picture

I heard the album on Amazon mp3 and fell in love with "A man and a woman" I believe is the track. Because she is speaking French, I believe. I dabble in French (Frahn-say). I kinda of regret not forkin over for the whole mp3 or physical CD, LP, even better baby. Maybe me and my hubbie will cuddle up with the other album!