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JAZZ SPOTLIGHT : Not Just Another Lounge Singer

PATRICIA BARBER

“cafe blue”

Premonition Records

* * * 1/2

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It would be a mistake to dismiss Patricia Barber as just another talented lounge singer who plays piano. Sure, the Chicago-based Barber has the qualifications of a good after-hours vocalist: a suitably dark, smoky tone served up in relaxed, contemplative style. And, like the best practitioners of her craft, she’s adept at choosing just the right material and putting it to the perfect tempo.

But Barber is much more ambitious than the usual purveyor of standards. Her own compositions, half of the 12 selections here, are literate and crafted in a way that melds jazz, new music and a variety of classical influences.

On “Mourning Grace,” she borrows words from poet Maya Angelou, placing them against a minimalist piano figure that is later dressed by driving bass, drums and guitar. Her lyric to “What a Shame” is smart, after-midnight stuff, placed in pinpoint yet quirky style against the soft sway of the tune’s instrumental accompaniment.

Inspired by lines from Virginia Woolf, the spacey, a cappella harmonies of the overdubbed “Wood Is a Pleasant Thing to Think About” are as far from the lounge tradition as it gets.

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Then there’s “Romanesque,” a stately guitar-vocal improvisation that carries the dignified airs of a Gregorian chant. In contrast, her inquisitive keyboard work on “Yellow Car III” is decidedly avant-garde.

This sort of far-flung variety suggests that Barber is cutting too wide a swath. She isn’t. Everything here is stamped with such a strong sense of personal identity that the disc, despite its wide-ranging ambitions, makes a single statement. Even the covers, including such diverse numbers as Frank Loesser’s “Inch Worm,” Miles Davis’ “Nardis” and Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” are fashioned in her brooding image.

Though the dynamic ending of “Too Rich,” with drummer Mark Walker’s tribal tom-tom play and John McLean’s echoing guitar, overstays its welcome, it’s the album’s only flaw. Patricia Barber is breathing new life into the often dull and stagnant art of jazz singing.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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Hear Patricia Barber

* To hear a sample from Barber’s album “cafe blue,” call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press * 5740.

In the 805 area code, call (818) 808-8463.


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