The evening of the 26th we caught a performance by Patricia Barber, which was remarkable. I can’t imagine anyone who likes pretty well any kind of jazz not liking Ms Barber. Herewith a bit of background and some details.
I chose this photo off her website because although it’s not a good photo of P.B., it does capture the spirit of one of her gigs. You’ll notice that she and the musicians are actually looking at each other, which happens a lot as they play, and they need to, because the music is complicated and goes through a lot of changes, sometimes really fast.
The picture shows three-quarters of the band; visible are Michael Arnopol on stand-up bass and Neal Algers on guitar, we don’t see Erik Montzka on drums. They’re all very fine, but a few special words are in order for Arnopol; I’ve never heard bass-playing anything like it. While his jazz-standard pizzicato has a lot of swing and flair and imagination, he goes further; on a couple of numbers he pulled out a bow and played some ravishing sinuous melody lines. On another number he used this red plastic drumstick-thingie and managed to impersonate an entire rhythm section.
Now, as for P.B. and her music. She has produced many albums, of which Cafe Blue and Modern Cool are my favorites; I have admired her recent material somewhat less. She is prone to a touch of wordiness and pretension and coming it a bit high.
But when she’s on, she’s really on: her best songs (for example Too Rich For My Blood) are going to be in the repertory forever I expect. On top of which, she's a gripping singer with a beautiful voice that she deploys in a variety of jazz and blues timbres, enough that you can coast right by the excess of five-syllable words in the lyrics.
On top of which, she’s an astounding piano improviser, with pace and grace and rhythm, ranging into deep blue, and (something close to my heart) lots of room between the notes. Not that she can’t pound out a chromatic avalanche a la McCoy Tyner when it’s called for; but she can leave perfect three-and-a-whisker beats of diminishing reverb between a run and the chord it (unexpectedly) was heading for.
One other nice thing about P.B. is that she covers standards, occasionally surprising ones: Ode to Billie Joe, A Taste of Honey (which in my opinion she now owns), Light My Fire, Black Magic Woman. Her versions are not hopelessly jazzed-up, but unironic, respectful, and a whole lot of fun.
Even given all that, the concert was more than the sum of the parts. When I go to hear modern jazz, I don't expect to hear a lot of snappy tunes (although P.B. does give you that), nor do I expect razor-sharp orchestration. But I do expect to be surprised, this is supposed to be about improvization, right? And every tune in the (kind of short) show had several twists and turns and surprises. The band was astoundingly tight, some of the solos were gasp-inducing, they even established their modern-jazz credibility by going a little outside on a couple of tunes, and the organic flow of give-and-take among the band was a thing you just don’t find in music outside of the very top echelon in jazz. This was underlined by the fact that P.B. was obviously making up the set list as she went along.
She ended up, as good shows should, with a hammer-down romp, in this case through Black Magic Woman. Then the encore was Moon River, played slow and straight and low, only I’ve never heard it played before by that good a band.
I’d go see her anytime, anywhere. She has a semi-permanent weekly gig in Chicago which I’ve never managed to make, but I will one of these years.
P.S.: She has an excellent web site. Not only that, but I didn’t quite catch the musicians’ names during the concert, so I emailed them wondering who the road band was, and got the details back by email in about fifteen minutes. Not bad.