In the classic schism, now a half-century old, West coast jazz is kept cool and East coast jazz is bopped hard (the term “Hot Jazz” had already been used by the pre-swing pioneers of the form). Vocalist, writer, and pianist Patricia Barber is a Chicagoan, so she can have her choice, I suppose. And, in one sense, she looks to the West. Barber’s so cool, you might catch a chill from listening. On the other hand, her music effuses a restrained sophistication that has nothing at all to do with fish tacos, Hollywood blockbusters, or hippie drum circle jams. Although she hails from Illinois, I find it impossible not to picture Patricia Barber framed within a Manhattan skyline, a martini stemmed between her fingers, pausing for a reflective moment before returning to her coterie of art dealers, philanthropists, physicians, and professors of Greek mythology. Perhaps Barber falls into a chat about careers with a tweedy, silver-haired gent ensconced in a corner with a potted plant. “Jazz musician? Lovely. You know, dear. You should compose an entire album devoted to the legends of ancient Greece. Really quite a lot of fodder for one’s songcrafting, I should think.”
But that’s just the hackneyed movie in my head. I mean to convey atmosphere more so than biography. In reality, Barber has based most of the 11 tracks of Mythologies on characters from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Titles such as “Morpheus” (not the dude from The Matrix), “Pygmalion” (nothing to do with Eliza Doolittle), and “Narcissus” (having everything to do with self-obsession) offer familiar cultural toeholds for us. Best known, probably, is “Icarus”, the oft-told (and retold) fable of the man who built for himself a pair of wings and flew, only to fall when he soared too close to the Sun. For sure, Barber is not the first to explore this myth in song. Icarus has plunged again and again, thanks to Iron Maiden (“Flight of Icarus”), the Verlaines (“Icarus Missed”), Ani DiFranco (just plain “Icarus”), and many others. Barber, however, fuses this parable to a profile of Nina Simone, to whom she dedicates the song: “an angel black as the color of her hair / begins to sing and play and dare / to form a perfect design, a boldfaced / attempt to fly”. The story has always been about trying to squash those who dare to dream. Barber’s take on it, then, is a perfect ode to the fearless Simone. It’s also the disc’s best and most spirited track, with impassioned performances from her quartet of drummer Eric Montzka (rolling out the waves on his toms), Michael Arnopol on bass, and Neal Alger’s guitar (digging into a frenetic groove at the climax of the tune).
Mythologies begins with “The Moon”, a track reprised from Barber’s last studio album, 2003’s excellent Verse. The original was approached more abstractly, with her band adding whipped-up flourishes of guitar and cymbal. The new version, like the new record in general, feels more cerebral and cautious. Beginning almost inaudibly, a drum groove breaks free midway through, with solos from Barber on piano and guest saxophonist Jim Gailloreto. Despite the dynamic shift and the fine improvisations from the performers, the track still feels boxed-in; the overall mood, tentative. The rest of the album does little to change this impression. “Morpheus”, on the god of sleep and dreams, is dinner jazz, musically. All dusky and sentimental, the tight ABBA rhyme pattern (not the Swedish pop group) only adds to the triteness of the track. “Pygmalion” makes up little ground, sticking to the same formula. “Hunger” features a sly Latin beat and even slyer lyrics about the bottomlessness of desire: “the closer you come, the more you want me / the more you want, the more you want to be free”. Whether about food or a lover, Barber is intentionally ambiguous. It’s this sense of whimsy and play, largely absent from Mythologies, that made Verse and earlier works like the live Companion (1999) and Café Blue (1994) so appealing. That frisky sense of fun is all but gone from Mythologies, allowing the cool restraint to dominate. Even on the closing track, “The Hours”, when joined by the small gospel choir Choral Thunder, the performance comes across as reined-in. Perhaps Patricia Barber aimed to produce a “mature” release; she takes herself a little too seriously here, however. Sometimes, playing it too cool will only elicit a tepid response. Mythologies, a hit-and-miss, release, is only just fine. I had hoped for more.