is more than the sum of her talents. As a composer, she peels back the craft of song to expose its barest textures, cultivating each like a tree that, while holding its own shape above ground, makes apparent the roots below it. As a singer, she understands not only that we perform our voices but also that our voices perform us. Whether crooning through the Great American Songbook, as on Nightclub
(Blue Note, 2000), or rowing through intensely original waters, as on the Ovid-inspired Mythologies
(Blue Note, 2006), she shapes words and meanings as one and the same. As a lyricist, she inhales the ingredients of life and exhales the perfume of lessons learned. As far as back "Too Rich for My Blood" on Café Blue
(Premonition Records, 1994), her attention to detail has revealed a continuity between the intimate and the grandiose. And as a pianist (her 2010 concert with Kenny Werner
, documented on a 2011 release by Floyd Records, being a quintessential example), she never ornaments for mere effect but draws out shades from the sentiments already flowing inside her.
Encountering Barber at this point in her career is like getting to the redemption chapter of a long and fascinating autobiography, and in every line one can feel her retrospective nature in spades. "You can tell what I care about," she says of listening to this album in a phone interview. "In some ways, this is all
I care about. In Smash
(Concord, 2013) you could tell my heart was broken, but you could also hear those art songs starting to come through. This one is a much happier affair, as it should be in this political climate."
chronicles an extroverted leap of intuition, it's as much a courageous dive inward, plumbing deeper-than-ever emotional reserves by blending whimsy and seriousness into an organic whole. Its centerpiece is "Angels, Birds, and I...," an eight-part art song cycle that polishes multiple facets of a modern soul trying to maintain her nonstick coating in an abrasive world. "I feel very much that this album is a manifestation of my hard-won harmonic evolution," Barber says. The result of six years' labor, these sonic dioramas sound at once out of time and utterly relevant: "Art song is its own world. Even though you have these improvisational envelopes, it's distinct from jazz. The harmonies are much vaster and difficult to put into words. One moment it all sounds new to us, and another it sounds familiar. This album is my own particular way of mixing those two things."
"Muse" provides a gloriously subtle introduction to that very dichotomy. Here our narrative guide struggles to marry inspiration with realization as she imagines a stage where another sings in her place. Through images of dressing and undressing, of love both real and imaginary, Barber's unflinching vocals thread every needle as if poised to make one last defining stitch. Storytelling doesn't even begin to describe the fullness at play as she delineates for us a path on which few other feet have made impressions. It's a thread that continues to run through "Surrender" and "Pallid Angel," both of which wrap sacred shades around secular bodies in pursuit of mutual trust. Like stones sinking into love after a wholehearted skip, they leave only ephemeral marks of their passage on the surface yet linger as nostalgic memories to be recaptured in moments of creative fancy.
All the more fitting then that the content of these songs should revolve around its perennial themes: "Angels, Birds, and I..." is an homage to music and singers. It's about love for music, and love as
music. As the protagonist I take on godly role, looking down on my singer and wishing I could do what she does." In this regard, "The Opera Song" glistens. This multilingual tale of allusions takes musical terms as reflections of one whose heart longs to belt out an aria for all to hear, but whose commitment to the status quo threatens to overtake that spark of individuality. Nowhere has Barber's deft balance of the Apollonian and the Dionysian been so present. "High Summer Season" parlays further climatic shifts into view. Accompanied only by guitar, Barber embodies every fluttering wing as if it were hers alone. Even more so in "The Albatross Song." What at first appears to be the monologue of a wife seeking fulfillment in a more familiar, less distant lover turns into a playful commentary on modern ennui. Said fulfillment blossoms in "Voyager," a somewhat surreal evocation of singing as a springboard for extraterrestrial journeying. As in the closing title song, it ends above the clouds, riding thermals of personal histories, closer to the edges of dreams.
Through it all, bassist Patrick Mulcahy
, drummer Jon Deitemyer
, guitarist Neal Alger
and saxophonist Jim Gailloreto document every emotional turn of phrase with nothing short of archival assurance. "These musicians have been working with me for a long time," says Barber. "I was lucky in not needing to travel far to find the best people for this project. Because they're basically playing chamber music, they had to approach it differently. They were vital to its development." Vital, too, is Barber's pianism as it winds through a smattering of standards to round out the album. Her rendition of Dave Brubeck
's "In Your Own Sweet Way" is a highlight, and stands firm alongside a savvily arranged "Secret Love." The encore, as it were, comes to us by way of lyric soprano Katherine Werbiansky, whose take on "The Opera Song" gives us another side of the story. By the end of all this, we have encountered songs that change both within their own skins and between them, each a life in miniature waiting to nourish itself on the food of our attention.