Patricia Barber possesses one of the most bewitching voices on the current jazz scene. While certainly nowhere near as powerful or, indeed, as magisterial a presence as Diane Schuur, or as ebullient as Karrin Allyson, she is simply in a class by herself in terms of sensuous languor. She pronounces every syllable with an arch crispness that simply must be obeyed.
But it would be the height of disingenuousness to suggest that Barber's talents lay merely in the realms of her voice. No, the fact is that she's also a bandleader and pianist of extraordinary skill. This disc is composed of tracks recorded at three different venues in France during March and April of 2004. Barber's quartet, composed of guitarist Neal Alger, bassist Michael Arnapol and drummer Eric Montzka, readily proves itself the equal of any other current jazz outfit you'd care to mention -- I'd put Barber's group up against Brad Mehldau's trio any day of the week. In terms of their canny way with surprisingly revealing arrangements of familiar pop sounds, I'd even put them up against the Keith Jarrett's "Standards Trio". Barber may not have the harder edge of your average ECM recording artist, but she does have an elegantly sparse way with melody that places her at an abstruse angle to most of her peers.
And of course, the fact that she uses her quartet as a platform for modern pop songwriting as well as wild improvisation places her even further apart from her peers. As a songwriter, I think she does for the jazz tradition something very similar to what Lyle Lovett does for country: musically, her writing is well within traditional generic boundaries, but there are also unspoken boundaries which her sly, brazenly intellectual lyrics routinely cross. A couple of the original compositions on A Fortnight in France are actually previews from a forthcoming song-cycle based on Ovid's Metamorphoses, paid for by a grant from the Guggenheim Fellowship grant. These are not the usual lyrical preoccupations of a pop singer, especially not one so firmly entrenched in the jazz canon.
But aside from that, the album also offers the familiar pleasures of Cy Coleman's "Witchcraft", performed sans vocals and stretched out to a regal six-and-a-half minutes. Regardless of whether or not they're keeping pace with Barber's more recondite original compositions or trotting out an old standard, the quartet plays with a refreshing sophistication that stands at odds with most of the garishly produced pop-jazz on the shelves today. The virtues of Barber's muscular, classically influenced piano style is on wonderful showcase here. She relies on sustain and slight atonality to a greater extent than any of her immediate peers in jazz piano, and the slightly modernistic effect is sometimes gleefully jarring in the context of jazz and pop standards.
The group's walking tour of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" is another highlight. "This song has such wonderfully open chords that allow you to interpret it any way you choose", Barber said in a recent interview conducted for the album's press kit. "Sometimes we get too wild with it." Certainly, the group appears as limber here as anywhere else, taking a freewheeling, aggressive approach to the track that leads to dizzying, almost discordant heights of rhythmical and melodic complexity.
"Norwegian Wood" is followed by one of Barber's most impressive compositions, the almost Laurie Anderson-esque "Whiteworld". This is another piece that foreshadows Barber's Metamorphoses, and much of the dramatic impetus is placed directly on Barber's slithering, snarling vocal. I make the Anderson comparison for the simple reason that both women have a knack for condensing complex political and literary concerns into steely, almost forbidding lyrics. "Whiteworld" takes the person of Ovid's Oedipus on a tour through modern economic imperialism -- heady material for any songwriter, but definitely aided here by the group's vigorous and propulsive reading of the material. The pointed satire is eased by the jaunty musical context.
But just in case you though the album was getting too far away from you, Barber finishes up the disc with an encore performance of Chris Montez's obscure, samba- influenced 1960s pop gem "Call Me". It's an uncharacteristically light and smooth moment for the group, but it is no less enjoyable for the fact that it's straight out of left field. It's a pleasing antidote to "Whiteworld", and you can easily imagine how this plaintively romantic ballad could ease an audience back into the rhythms of normalcy after such a frenetic crescendo.
A Fortnight in France is a wonderful album, and presents a vivid snapshot of one of the great emerging jazz talents of our time. I look forward with great eagerness to seeing what the future holds for Barber and Co.