9:40 AM CST, January 26, 2013
Very few musicians can bring the rambunctious Green Mill Jazz Club to a near hush, but Patricia Barber did it through most of her first set Friday night.
Granted, the overflow audience clearly knew the significance of the occasion: Barber's debut performance of repertoire from her first major-label recording in five years, "Smash" (Concord Jazz). Following the two-night run at the Green Mill, Barber will be touring the world periodically through the rest of the year, and everyone wanted to hear what Barber had created for her followers here at home and abroad.
Even so, it was startling to behold the house settling down after just the first note or two of Barber's opening, whispered, wordless vocals. The stillness of the room suited the intimacy of this work while inadvertently reminding everyone that the Green Mill phone needs to be silenced during such occasions. And could someone please oil the squeaky doors to the bathrooms?
That we could even hear such low-decibel distractions says a lot about the aura that surrounded this appearance, Barber playing almost as if she were in her living room, albeit with the energy and tension that only live performance affords.
That initial, loosely improvised opener – with Barber inventing other-worldly strands of wordless vocal melody – captured the mysterious quality of all the music on "Smash." Yes, the recording offers songs obviously about lost love and yearning, but even these genre pieces are veiled with ambiguous lyrics open to wide interpretation.
The tour de force of "Smash," as this evening underscored, lies in the nearly seamless ways Barber has woven lyrics to melody and harmony. Or perhaps it's more accurate to observe that all three of these elements originate from a single, idiosyncratic source, Barber inventing unusual melodic lines tailored to the unconventional texts she pens and colored by the complex, classically tinged harmonies she favors.
No one else writes or sounds like this, in other words, because no one else approaches the arts of singing, songwriting and piano playing with Barber's particular interests. The liquidity of her vocals, the sharp edge of her jazz pianism and the quirkiness of her original songs cannot be imitated and remain a work in perpetual progress.
With the music of "Smash," Barber has compressed more meaning into fewer words than ever before, but she also has achieved a greater translucency of sound than in the past. The best of these songs seem as delicate and ethereal as a passing summer breeze, their essence gone before you've fully realized they were there.
Consider "Scream," an expressionistic cry that Barber and her quartet delivered with signature subtlety. She took her time to linger over every syllable, exploring the perilous nature of life and the possibility of faith in a few telegraphic verses. The piece culminated with a scream as quiet and unsettling as you're likely to hear for awhile. Not the kind of thing you typically encounter from jazz singers these days.
"Missing," perhaps the most straightforward and searing song on the album, as well as its finale, sounded even more fragile in concert, Barber expressing romantic longing – or some other kind – with remarkable care and emotional openness.
Some in the audience might have objected to how many purely instrumental pieces Barber included in this set. But considering the pristine quality of her right-hand piano lines and the evocative nature of her collaborators' contributions, these interludes ultimately provided breathing room amid the intensity of her sung lyrics. Guitarist John Kregor's sometimes insinuating, sometimes raucous solos established the instrumental framework for many of these pieces, while Larry Kohut's sonorous bass playing and Jon Deitemyer's tautly coiled drum work reflected the economy and concision of Barber's concept for "Smash."
Barber has taken many artistic risks with this music, which defies the obviousness that the modern-day jazz record industry prizes when it comes to vocalists. Bravo for that.
Patricia Barber performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $15; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.
Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC