Like the high priestess of bop descending to feed the jazz faithful with holy manna, singer/pianist Patricia Barber offers sustenance in this conservative jazz era. As well-groomed female jazz singers work the standards repertoire with boring reverence, Barber instead demands our attention and our brains. Recalling Mose Allison, Jack Kerouac, and Joni Mitchell with guidance from Charles Mingus and Sartre, Barber reinvents piano jazz bop as something fresh and absolutely swinging.
Repeated auditions of Verse reveal great depth and daring from this Chicago original. Giving her band amazing flexibility as she conjures cryptic poetry and executes piano work of restraint and charm, Barber heats up the room with jazz philosophy 101. While her music never swings in the classic sense, Verse creates immense breathing room, evoking the sound of hothouse nights -- even the sound of silence. She breaks up the spaces with long, elastic instrumental breaks and lyrics that amuse as often as they confuse.
In the eerie "I Could Eat Your Words" Barber drops subtle piano as she riffs on Descartes and Aristotle. She sings "I could eat your words/Melt objection with stimulation/Simmer truth with prevarication/Taste your virtue and honor and time." It may not make sense, but it sure hits the spot. "Pieces" is a lazy funk workout about either media control or jet lag, the au naturel "Lost In This Love" recalls The Band from Stagefright, and "If I Were Blue" namedrops Edward Hopper and David Hockney in a witty union of poetry and surreal jazz.
Though Barber's voice is well recorded and framed -- and her quartet is amply captured -- overall there is something smaller than life about the sound of Verse. Drums sound flat and close miked, the acoustic bass is clean but not particularly resounding or deep, nor is Barber's piano as hot, signal-wise, as it could be. But since Barber's voice comes across first and foremost, most listeners will not quibble over the minor nits noted here. It's not as though the sound is thin or dry; it simply lacks the tiniest amount of desired wallop. Regardless, Barber is so ahead of the pack, so in her own space, she practically makes time stand still.
GO BACK TO: