Patricia Barber - Smash CD

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1 Code Cool
2 The Wind Song
3 Romanesque
4 Smash
5 Redshift
6 Spring Song
7 Devil's Food
8 Scream
9 The Swim
10 Bashful
11 The Storyteller
12 Missing

Produced by Patricia Barber

(Concord Records - 2013)


On Smash, her January 22, 2013 debut on Concord Jazz, Patricia Barber reiterates her unique position in modern music as a jazz triple-threat � imaginative pianist, startling vocalist, and innovative composer (international release dates may vary). With a new band and a dozen new compositions, she also continues her two-decade crusade to retrieve the ground that jazz musicians long ago ceded to pop and rock: the realm of the intelligent and committed singer-songwriter, tackling even familiar subjects (like love and loss) with a nuance and depth beyond the limits of the Great American Songbook.

Once again � in the crisp chill of her vocals, as well as the fiery feminine intellect that informs her music and lyrics � Barber makes most of her contemporaries sound like little girls.

A prime example is the title track, where Barber paints the end of a love affair with subtly stated allusions to destruction: the erosion of edifices; a bloody road accident. The lines are more akin to poetry than conventional song lyrics, as she depicts �the crumbling of tall castles built / on kisses and blood / and dreams so like sand.� The song�s reprise compares �the sound of a heart breaking� to �the sound of / the red on the road� � a devastatingly effective m�lange of synesthetic imagery. Aided by a raw, forceful guitar solo, the performance illuminates a counter-intuitive realization about loss:

�It just struck me, as it does everyone who experiences great loss, that on the outside, no one can tell,� Barber explains. �You go to the grocery store, and everything�s the same, which is shocking. It struck me that this is the sound of a heart breaking: silence. You�re alone. And I felt that this was an interesting juxtaposition, since the sound of a heart breaking should be the loudest, screamiest, shriekiest combination of sounds there could be.�

Barber has another song on the subject of �loud, shrieky� emotion: �Scream,� paradoxically set to a gentle, quiet melody that belies its message, and which has proved extremely popular with those audiences hearing it prior to this recording. �Scream / when Sunday / finally comes / and God / isn�t there . . . . the soldier / has his gun / and the war / isn�t where / we thought it would be.� As Barber points out in conversation, with only the slightest sarcasm, �It�s an angry song � and everyone wants that.�

Her anger finds a more whimsical (but no less impactful) outlet in the catchy �Devil�s Food,� written specifically from Barber�s perspective as a gay woman: �boy meets boy / girl meets girl / given any chance / to fall in love / they do� . . . / like loves like / like devil�s food / like chocolate twice / I�m in the mood / for you . . . .�� She wrote the song in reaction to last year�s highly publicized efforts to quash gay-marriage initiatives around the country:

�It made me mad, and it made me want to make a declaration � but to make it fun. I find one of the best ways to bring people to your perspective is of course to charm them, and music can always do that. That�s how I get a lot of people thinking about a lot of things. I mean, the lyrics are fairly graphic � �sweet on sweet, meat on meat� � but the music is so beguiling, I think I make the case. And when it becomes clear that it�s turning into a gay disco song, it�s really fun watching people�s reaction, which is surprise and mostly delight.�

It�s not the usual territory trod by jazz singers and songwriters; we�re a long way from �The Man I Love.� (�Smart songs about the way we think and live, not just about the way we love,� wrote Margo Jefferson in The New York Times.)

Much of Barber�s magic lies in setting these words to music as fully evocative as it is coolly provocative. Many of her arrangements attain a thrilling friction between style and substance. (For a defining example, turn to �Redshift,� in which Barber weds the science-geek lyric � itself a miraculous marriage of physics and love � to the gentle lull of a bossa-nova beat.)� Throughout the album, her Chicago-based quartet � comprising the superlative rhythm team of bassist Larry Kohut and drummer Jon Deitemyer, with the edgy and arresting John Kregor on guitars � functions as a translucent extension of Barber�s own musicality, while her piano work enjoys a prominence that some of her newer fans may not previously have experienced.

One song, �Missing� � perhaps the album�s most indelible portrait of heartache � came about in an unusual way: �This was a commission, I guess you could call it. A woman sent me a letter and her story, and a very small check, and asked if I could turn it into a song. It was sort of an outrageous request, but it really hit me, so I wrote it; it was my idea to take the story through the four seasons. In some ways, it�s the sleeper of the record. When I play this in concert, a lot of people cry at this one.�

The other songs on Smash represent the fruit of Barber�s decision to write what she calls a �syllabic song series�; these pieces resulted from a disciplined framework, based on the number of beats in each poetic line. (For instance, �The Swim� consists entirely of two-syllable lines; �Spring Song� has three such phonemes per line; �The Wind Song,� six.) �I studied the songwriters, but now I just study the poets,� she explains. �I�m trying to make the poetry of a finer order. But I still need to rhyme, because rhyme is rhythm, and rhythm is music.�

Audiophiles will be especially glad to know that Smash reunites Barber with her long-time recording engineer Jim Anderson (with whom she first worked in 1994, on her Premonition Records debut Caf� Blue.) Anderson � who is Professor of Recorded Music at New York University�s Tisch School for of the Arts � has again captured Barber�s music with the clarity and presence that led Stereophile Magazine to label Caf� Blue a �Record To Die For.� HDTracks and Mastered for iTunes versions of Smash are also available.

After her long association with Premonition and then Blue Note Records, Barber self-released her two most recent albums � recorded at Chicago�s legendary Green Mill, her weekly showcase for more than two decades � and had no plans to sign with anyone else at this point in her career. �I didn�t have a contract, or even a recording in mind,� she states. �I assumed that when I had a group of ten or so new songs I would probably put it out myself.� Halfway through this process, Barber received an offer from Concord, which she promptly turned down: �I was really enjoying the freedom of not having a label, especially in this environment, and just doing what I always do � trying to advance myself musically, practicing a lot, and locking in on what I consider a really good band.�

But the persistence of Concord producer Nick Phillips won out. �He came to see me, and he reminded me so much of Bruce Lundvall,� Barber recalls, referring to the former Blue Note president with whom she worked closely. �I had been grieving the loss of that professional relationship. And then Nick mentioned that he has great respect and admiration for Bruce. So we hit it off personally, and that�s what it takes for me.�

That, and the chance to take her time � to read poetry, practice piano, and do some gardening on a tract of farmland she owns in Michigan, a welcome getaway from city life in Chicago. That�s how Barber�s ideas take root and bloom. She remains an electrifying performer, but performance is not the most important aspect of her art. �My favorite part is the internal part � the research,� she points out. �All the interesting stuff happens inside your head and at the piano.�

Fortunately, those of us not in Patricia Barber�s head or at her piano still get to enjoy the fruits of that labor.

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