by Marina Villarreal, News Editor
A low pluck of a bass resonates through the room followed by the slow hiss of a cymbal. A pink glow from ceiling lights highlights the ornate paintings on the wall, gleaming as if revisiting a bygone era. Total darkness envelopes the space, leaving a complete quiet as all eyes rest on the silhouette of four figures. A man quickly introduces the act while a cash register dings open in the background.
Suddenly, fast-paced piano notes begin, and finally a silky voice splits the air.
Continuing off the success of 2006 release “Mythologies” and 2007’s “The Premonition Years,” jazz composer and songwriter Patricia Barber is back after a five-years of touring. Her latest album “Smash,” a debut off Concord Jazz recording label, is an impressive array of poetic nuances on life, destruction, love, loss and the way we think.
Wearing a white bandana, hoop earrings, black coat and signature black glasses, Barber makes no special announcements and instead goes straight into the music. The casual playing style allows for her performance to speak for itself.
Growing up in South Sioux City, Iowa, Barber was classically trained in piano at a young age and was used to hearing jazz played from her musician father, Floyd “Shim” Barber from the Glen Miller Band. Later, she moved back to her hometown Chicago and played sets at local jazz lounges.
Her latest album’s title track, “Smash,” is both a haunting and sinister look at grief after heartbreak. A guitar solo triggers a melodic punch and exemplifies the sense of hopelessness of lost love that digs deep long after it is over.
Barber is known to sing sometimes above a whisper, making the audience really reel in to listen, another trait that makes every show an intimate experience. This is apparent in “The Wind Song,” a delicately smooth composition. It allows the listener to relax and drift away in thought.
In up-tempo “Red Shift,” a crowd favorite, we are immediately seduced by Barber’s clear vocals alongside soothing guitar riffs and light piano notes. Hypnotic lyrics also weave stories full of imagery. “Spinning in myself/ it’s difficult to tell if interstellar movement is separation/ Will you leave behind/ your planetary guides for deeper space and time and brighter constellations.”
“Scream” comes off as a slow ballad until the notes turn into a fireball of rock and angry tones suggesting the release of pent up emotions.
When she is not traveling on tour, Barber returns to play her weekly Monday night sets at the infamous Green Mill with her band mates Larry Kohut (bass), Makaya McCrave (drums) and Neal Alger (guitar). Substitutions of band players can occur depending on the night.
With electrifying notes, sharp vocals and clever lyrics, Barber embodies a soulful and honest approach to each composition in her extensive repertoire while still staying true to jazz traditions. She continues to astound audiences from all around the world and various walks of life. This can readily be seen in the diverse audience at her shows. On this particular late-Autumn night, not one seat is empty, and latecomers are crammed into the venue as standing-room only.
Her album “Smash” is an incredible achievement and provides an emotional depth not easily captured, making this a sophisticated jazz album meant to be shared.
An audience member commented on her popularity: “What’s not to like about her? Her lyrics are smart, yet she’s also unassuming.”