The harping of rigid purists or self-proclaimed visionaries aside, the enduring strength of jazz has always been its ability to accommodate both tradition and innovation. Patricia Barber has done plenty of experimenting on albums like Café Blue
, Modern Cool
. Her smartly crafted originals and reinventions of rock tunes like “Light My Fire” and “The Beat Goes On” have earned Ms. Barber a much deserved reputation as one of the most unique and interesting singer/songwriter/pianists in jazz. Having found her own distinctive voice and having demonstrated a willingness to push boundaries, Ms. Barber turns her attention to the music’s tradition with this collection of twelve standards.
Nightclub provides Ms. Barber with an ideal showcase for her formidable keyboard skills. She is an astonishingly creative improviser who manages to burrow deep inside a song without losing her sense of proportion. Her piano solos on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Invitation” and “All or Nothing at All” are concise, brilliantly constructed explorations of those tunes. She undertakes a more extended improvisation on “Yesterdays” where she creates a fascinating dynamic between relaxation and tension. Ms. Barber has surrounded herself with musicians who can match her own high standards. “Autumn Leaves” features a remarkable solo from bassist Marc Johnson, and “Alfie” is highlighted by Charlie Hunter’s 8-string guitar.
Ms. Barber is a quiet, intense, enormously intelligent singer who can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up with a single word or phrase. She has chosen these standards with care and her singing is blessedly free of irony or tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. Rather than trying to subvert the lyrics, Ms. Barber underscores the timelessness of their themes by infusing them with her own thoroughly modern perspective. She turns “Just for a Thrill” and a perfectly phrased “You Don’t Know Me” into meditations on dependency and desire that feel completely contemporary. She makes a spare, evocative “I Fall in Love Too Easily” into an exercise in painful self-examination and an exceptional reading of Cole Porter’s “So in Love” into the last word on romantic obsession (no singer has ever gotten as much from the lines “so taunt me / and hurt me”). The CD is not, however, all brooding introspection. There are some lighter moments like the deliciously romantic “Summer Samba.”
Some critics will no doubt express consternation over the fact that Nightclub is not a repeat of the Modern Cool formula. However, Ms. Barber deserves credit for refusing to adhere to pre-set expectations. So long as she continues to make CDs with the kind of musicianship and insight she demonstrates here, then the past, present and future of jazz are all in good hands.