Recording of January 2000: Companion

Patricia Barber, vocals, piano, Hammond B-3; John McLean, guitar; Michael Arnopol, bass; Eric Montzka, percussion
Premonition/Blue Note 5 22963 2 (CD). 1999. Barber and Michael Friedman, prods.; Jim Anderson, eng. John Larson and Tom Reinholdt, asst. engs. AAD? TT: 58:11
Performance ****?
Sonics ****?

In an aviary full of extravagant mynah birds, Patricia Barber flies alone. For a sensitive lug like moi, she's the ultimate anti-diva, the failed romantic's last hope amid the antediluvian cant of the new classicism.

Now I ain't telling you that Patricia Barber is the first lady of song or the last word in virtuosity, but she is an original—a master deconstructionist with a propensity for sustaining musical moodscapes in a rich narrative style with an ironic, languid, Raymond Chandler kinda film-noir edge (by way of brand-new-used Annie Ross). Harrowing and melancholy, whimsical and graceful, tightly wound yet profoundly cool, Barber ain't your father's Oldsmobile, and while her inspirational trajectory might suggest Joni Mitchell, Cassandra Wilson, or Holly Cole, the irascible ambiguity of her recitatives, the spacious, hypnotic sing-song of her phrasing, and her ability to suffuse Latin, freeform, fusion, and modern jazz in a moody sapphire glow—all help explain why she is an emerging star.

We deducted a half star from the exemplary performance and excellent sonics of Barber's superb new live set, Companion, not out of any critical ennui, but out of simple respect for its studio predecessor. That edgy breakthrough hit, Modern Cool, is one of the most compelling, brilliantly recorded sets of jazz-hyphen songs I've ever heard. No hip nostalgia for this solid sender. "Primitive inspiration packaged in modern disguise.... / masculine resolve with a feminine plan, / domination and submission, / she smells the gas and lights the match...," Barber sings on "A Touch of Trash," her pissy take on the seductive, enervating nature of fashion in both relationships and creative endeavors. This wry quality enlightens the best originals on either album, such as the live set's wry, cranky "If This Isn't Jazz"—the singer's astringent, spooky send-up of political correctness, stylistic lockstep, and self-consciousness in the jazz life ("the cities that glamour forgot").

Hey, to listen is to understand my over-the-top enthusiasm and the unbridled word-of-mouth Barber's inspired over the past few years. Her keyboard playing is spare, atmospheric, and devoid of artifice, although on "Like JT" Barber establishes her credentials as a harmonically fulsome, rhythmically provocative piano soloist. Her voice has a smoky, world-weary luster like the first light after a storm, an effect she milks for all it's worth on her bittersweet beige confessional, "Let It Rain."

But for all the intensity and mystery of her originals, it's Barber's ability to deconstruct and transform popular materials that most captivates this listener. Bill Withers' protagonist on the original rendition of "Use Me" comes across as a steady soldier in the battle of the sexes, ready, willing, and able to pay the price for pleasure. Barber exacts something much more sinister from the narrator of this unsettling, subliminal tale of sexual compulsion and submission; her spare, dissonant Hammond B-3 break is a sure portent of doom that makes you want to shout, "Run, girl!"

Better still, Barber leaves plenty of room for her band to shine. This electro-percussive ensemble is fluid and swinging, combustible and painterly by turns, and more than a match for her many moods, which are what make Companion so satisfying from start to finish, and inevitably leave you wanting just a little bit more.—Chip Stern