Pianist/vocalist Patricia Barber's recording debut, Split, is a fairly straight-ahead affair featuring the idiosyncratic stylist on various standards and originals. Showcasing her unique approach to jazz, the album finds Barber mixing pointed and minimalist lines a la Chet Baker with a dramatic cabaret vocal style and complex harmonic post-bop passages - a template that longtime fans will recognize. To these ends, Barber opens with a brisk Latin version of "Early Autumn," takes a dusky vocal turn on "Easy to Love," and shows her cerebral side on such originals as "Winter Illusion." Joining Barber here are bassist Michael Arnopol and drummer Mark Walker.
All Music Guide
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When Patricia Barber sits at coffee, or talks with friends, or stands off- stage at Chicago's Gold Star Sardine Bar, her long slim fingers seem at odds with their surroundings. They move to express speech, but searchingly; when they rest, they do so without ease.
It is when she sits down at the small grand piano at the Gold Star - the tiny nightclub that all but defines the word "intimate" - that Patty Barber's fingers stop searching and settle in. They race or linger with insouciant grace, pulling a rich, assured timbre from the instrument, and they relax, oblivious to the pressure of their situation. It is on the piano hat her fingers are finally at home.
In fact, she sounds so comfortable - he keyboard so obviously an extension of her arms-that people have been surprised when she starts to sing. That's when she unveils her dark pure timbre, her heightened sense of human emotion. Like smoked glass, her voice is slightly shrouded yet crystalline, and it gets you immediately - long before you notice the singer's pitch control, or her improvisational ability, or the small wonders of her phrasing.
When Barber lists her musical mentors, it tells you much about her singing. She names Chet Baker, but not because of his quirky, naked vocal style; Barber's own singing owes more to Baker's trumpet playing. "He was almost a perfect jazz instrumentalist," she says. She lauds the Brazilian singers Lent Andrade and Elis Regina for the emotionalism of their approach. And she counts Sheila Jordan, the innovative vocalist who has resisted public adulation, high on her list of personal heroes - although not on her list of favorite singers. Explains Patty: "Sheila's singing gave me permission to do what I want with my voice."
Like her piano work, Patty Barber's voice can also stand on its own, which explains the title of this debut recording. "It's because I really am split," Patty explains, "split between playing the piano and singing;" as proof, this album contains four instrumentals and six vocal performances. But Split is a misleading title, too. For while either of these personae can hold center stage alone, the whole artist is defined by their conjunction, and in the ways they illuminate each other.
And besides, other personae share the stage too. Barber writes with assurance and variety, as shown by the four original compositions she's included here. She is an often startling arranger, and when she radically re-interprets a standard - the signal example on this recording is the up-tempo, Brazilian-beat version of "Early Autumn" - she does so with such assurance, even abandon, that the purity of her vision sweeps the listener along in her wake. As a bandleader she has proved clear-eyed and demanding: in the process, she has learned what she wants and crafted a trio that moves with the hand-in-glove unity, the sense of trialogue, that Bill Evans perfected and exemplified. She reads voraciously, refusing to restrict her considerable intellect to music; and yet, it is in music that Barber's intellect emerges and delights.
Originally, though, she attempted to shield that intellect from music - to avoid her evident birthright as a jazz musician. Her father, Floyd "Shin" Barber, played saxophone, worked around Chicago, sat in with his friend Glenn Miller when the band came to town, and his musicality fascinated his daughter. "When he played the saxophone around the house, I'd put my hand in the bell to feel the music," she recalls. The father died when the daughter was only 9, and the family moved from the Chicago suburbs to Sioux City, the border between Iowa and Nebraska, the heart of the heart of the country. By then Patty had begun to study classical piano at home; in the high school band, though, she found an outlet for her jazz roots, playing her father's saxophone.
She enrolled at the University of Iowa, pursuing a double degree in classical piano and psychology, and studiously ignoring the siren song of jazz. "It was hanging over my head the whole time," she remembers. "But I thought that becoming a jazz musician was such a stupid thing for a woman to do - for a smart woman to do - that I tried to resist it." By the end of college, she found that impossible to do. She had not committed herself to jazz before then, so she remained in Iowa for another year, waitressing and trying to "learn jazz" from the coterie of excelent players who work in Iowa City.
"I practiced a lot that year, until I thought I had a foothold. Then I moved to Chicago - and got trashed, I mean trashed, for years." But, as Patty points out, she was still a jazz novice at that time, still studying and practicing, and she was convinced that the payoff would be worth the work-that it would justify the early rejection among Chicago's more experienced players. In 1981 she met and enlisted bassist Michael Arnopol - a superb and sympatico bassist-and told him, "Please stay with me. I guarantee I'll make you some money some day."
He's still around.
The tough times smoothed out, and Barber eventually found herself blessed with steady employment: eight months at a classy hotel bar on Michigan Avenue; a couple years establishing the backdrop for a chi-chi Rush Street watering hole; and finally her residence at the Gold Star Sardine Bar. She has played the Hotel Montana in Paris, engagements beckon in New York and Los Angeles, and 1989 marks her debut at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague; but mainly, Patty Barber's music lives at the Gold Star, the way Bobby Short's inhabits the Cafe Carlyle. On weekends, it's practically worth your life to get in.
This debut album gives you a good idea of what the fuss is all about. With Arnopol's telepathic support, and the crisp, unerring instincts of drummer Mark Walker, Barber has assembled a program indicative of her club performances, both bold and hushed, challenging and cushioning. All that's missing are the sounds of conversation and stemware.
"Retrograde," like Barber's other compositions, reflects her interest in musical developments more modern than the classic standards that dominate her vocal repertoire. Yet its darting, dervish energy is quite different from "Spy Sly," which contains a commanding piano solo (and which would fit perfectly into a set by Tania Maria). "Winter Illusion" broods but only lightly, a quiet piece with a thoughtful, restrained improvisation. Most remarkable of all is "Greys," for its use of space, for its harmonic structure, and its telling disso-nances; its reflective shadings obviously suit Barber's temperament, while Arnopol seeks out the eerier corners of the piece.
The remaining six songs encompass the various facets of Barber's distinctive, quietly spectacular voice. Both "Too Late Now" and "Two For The Road" are classic standards; they're rarely performed, possibly because so few singers are willing to invest the emotional commitment these songs demand. Both come radiantly alive on this recording- as does the reworked "Early Autumn," a continent removed from the languor Stan Getz originally brought to it.
Barber's vocal improvisations define both "Easy To Love" and "Alone Together." On the first, she starts the song with a rubato, deceptively free-floating voice solo - deceptive because it actually nails the intervalic leaps with impressive precision-then slides her scatting into a defined beat, and finally brings in the words with a half-sung, half-spoken casualness that owes a little to Fred Astaire. The result is a small suite. "Alone Together" is even more remarkable, with Barber starting a scat solo in unison with her piano lines, then splitting her voice up a fourth to continue the improvisation on another level. Some listeners assume she simply double-tracked the performance; she did not.
To close, Barber sings one of the loveliest (and least known) melodies by the quite special Arthur Schwartz, paired with Yip Harburg's gracious and heartfelt lyrics. This song speaks for itself, and Barber does little to it, offering the first chorus by herself, underplaying the arrangement when bass and drums join in: a simple and elegant finale from this complex and elegant woman. I have more than once been impressed, and a few times even transfixed, by the power of Patricia Barber's conception, the fundamental musicality of even her most idiosyncratic leaps. On any given night, the Gold Star teems with others in the same boat. But Patricia Barber has been one of Chicago's local treasures long enough; this album will spread the wealth. I suspect those outside of Chicago will consider it a fair split.
- Neil Tesser (Host of Jazz Forum, Chicago Public Radio, 1989)