Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Barber's probing 'Smash'


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Jazz vocalist/pianist/songwriter/bandleader Patricia Barber, 57, remains a true original. While her style is as inimitable as Billie Holiday's, her emotional affect is far cooler, and often suggests danger lurking just below the surface. For Smash, her first recording for Concord Records, Barber again sings in the unmistakable low-voiced, cool, quasi-parlando style that has brought her fame. Together with her guitarist, bassist, and drummer, she presents 12 new songs that mix oft-arcane lyrics with sensational arrangements characterized by percussive explosions.

The startling slam and spacy electric-guitar riffs of the opening track, "Code Cool," are balanced by the cool intellectualism of lyrics that are as puzzling as they are intriguing. Even if you can't always figure out everything she's talking about, you will likely sit up and take notice as Barber ends "Code Cool" with, "I walk as if I were dancing/I will speak as if I were teaching/I will live as if I were loving." She speaks of Einstein, Heisenberg, protons and particle shift in "Redshift."

Mysteries only hinted at in the lyrics are taken to deeper levels via supremely sophisticated pianistic modulations and key changes. The opening verse of "Smash," a song of heartbreak, quickly segues into a noisy interlude filled with sounds of electric guitar, crashing cymbals, and the like. If in one song, "Devil's Food," Barber speaks of "boy meets boy/girl meets girl" and plays with gender roles, the heterosexual love affair at the core of "Spring Song" suggests that Barber's fantasies are at best tangentially related to her 14-year relationship with Martha Feldman, Prof. of Music at the University of Chicago, whom she married in 2011.

The one song with no hidden meanings, "Scream," is a song of activism. "Scream when Sunday finally comes and God isn't there," Barber utters at the start of a piece that takes on global warming, investment bankers, war, and by implication, humanity's karmic come-uppance. As if the lyrics weren't clear enough by themselves, Barber rams her point home through minor-key transitions and a big instrumental breakout in the song's middle.

Currently available on CD as a high-resolution download from HDTracks, Smash benefits from the expertise of Barber's longtime recording and mixing engineer Jim Anderson. Thanks to his superb work and Barber's oft-mesmerizing arrangements, the recording is slated to appear in special audiophile-quality SACD and vinyl release formats from Mobile Fidelity. Much sooner and closer to home, Barber will perform on March 3 in SFJazz's new home on Franklin Street.


Patricia Barber performs at SF Jazz, 201 Franklin St., Sun., March 3, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, see or call (866) 920-5299.

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