Monday, 10 November 2008

Patricia Barber...

Just this week I've started to make good on a promise I made in a review written over four years ago - to catch up on Patricia Barber's back catalogue.

My relationship to song-based music has been distant for a few years, but recently I've been listening to more and more singers and singer/songwriters - from Nina Simone to Neil Young, Cassandra Wilson to Nick Drake. That's probably due in no small part to the influence of Louise's tastes. Musical cross-pollination of the healthiest kind, you could say. I liked Barber's music as soon as I heard it, and my recent binge on her output confirms those first impressions...

Live: A Fortnight In France
Blue Note Records (78214 2)

Gotcha; Dansons Le Giguel; Crash; Laura; Pieces; Blue Prelude; Witchcraft; Norwegian Wood; Whiteworld; Call Me.

Patricia Barber (voc/p); Neal Alger (g); Michael Arnopol (b); Eric Montzka (d).
Recorded 2004.

Although I’ve been aware of Barber’s growing reputation, and received repeated recommendations from friends over the last ten years or so, my reluctance to embrace vocalists has until now denied me the pleasure. More fool me, for Barber has the kind of dark and liquid-smooth alto voice, free of irritating tics and mannerisms, that I can listen to all day long. Throughout the course of this superb collection of songs, recorded live in three French cities, Barber not only impresses as a sophisticated and engaging singer-songwriter, but also as a pianist more than capable of holding her own should she make the unlikely decision never to sing again.

Her laconic wit and razor-sharp insights into all manner of familiar phenomena place her in the company of Mose Allison, and her approach to performance is both contemporary yet unmistakably an extension of the tradition. The material comprises a mix of originals and covers. Two instrumentals, the grooving ‘Crash’ and conventionally swinging ‘Witchcraft’ sit comfortably alongside a haunting and free-floating rendition of the Johnny Mercer classic ‘Laura’, an expansive deconstruction of Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Norwegian Wood’ and a fistful of originals that simply ooze class. ‘Danson La Giguel’ from her 2002 album Verse boasts lyrics, sung in French, by poet Paul Verlaine, whilst ‘Whiteworld’, based on the character oedipus from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis’ pits biting satire on contemporary trends in imperialism against an irresistibly funky backdrop. How many jazz vocalists could you name with such a wide scope?

The closing ‘Call Me’, despite being an almost throwaway encore, knocks spots off Eliane Elias’ overproduced version, reviewed earlier this year. Throughout these ten performances the musicianship is irreproachable and would carry even the lamest of voices, the band negotiating many stylistic challenges to meet Barber’s tirelessly adventurous approach. Guitarist Alger gets most of the solo space and has a contemporary palette that spikes up the music, whilst bassist Michael Arnopol and drummer Eric Montzka are almost telepathically conjoined, having played this gig so many times before. Established fans will welcome this document of a confident performer in her natural environment, whilst initiates like myself should take the cue to catch up with a back catalogue already stretching to eight recordings. Better late than never for me, and a prospect to relish!

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, November 2004)

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