One of most difficult tasks a jazz musician faces is to infuse the music with a unique personality. Neoclassicism has been the rule since the 1980s, a trend concretized by the Ken Burns series "Jazz," which deliberately downplayed the achievements of contemporary jazz artists.
If Burns ever wanted to correct the considerable damage he inflicted on the music's continuing progress, he could do a lot worse than note the career of pianist-songwriter Patricia Barber.
Barber is a singular success in defining her own territory. Her songwriting is completely unique, and on her last record, "Nightclub," she demonstrated a command of standards as well. This set her up for the most daring creative gambit of her career, "Verse," a magnificent album whose evocative, even sometimes harsh words are perfectly crafted to its startling melodies.
"Verse is about songwriting, and about trying to create new material with both a narrow and broad construction of what vocal jazz is now," said Barber. "I have been diligent about trying to learn from, absorb, and acknowledge the great American songwriters whose songs have been appropriated as repertoire by the jazz masters.
And yet, we are all a product of our time, and there are definite aspects of alternative pop music and contemporary classical music on this album as well. On this CD there is respectful homage to Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Mose Allison, Rogers and Hart, Joni Mitchell, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sting, Laurie Anderson and many more."
Barber is more just than a poet, singer, or songwriter. None of these categories alone can do justice to the fullness of her artistic presentation. Her thoughtful, clever lyrics seem naked on the page. She twists each syllable rhythmically, attaching subtle shades of melodic variation in a voice that often whispers but never reaches a shout. Her audacious approach to melody and song structure should place her in rare company as a jazz singer, yet this work begs to be seen more in the context of crossover masters from Tony Bennett to Joni Mitchell. In fact, "Verse" offers strong emotional echoes of Joni Mitchell's masterpiece "Blue."
Musically, Barber relies less on her own piano playing on "Verse" than the atmospheric settings created by bassist Michael Arnopol and drummer Joey Baron (Eric Montzka takes over the drums on the album's centerpiece, "I Eat Your Words") and outstanding lead performances from Dave Douglas (check the muted solo on "Regular Pleasures") and guitarist Neal Alger, whose playing ranges from contemplative acoustic guitar solos to searing, pointillist electric guitar accents.
"The producer in me deliberately made this decision," she said, "and the pianist in me regretted it. I worked with Dave on my album 'modern cool.' He's so special. In my opinion he's the best jazz trumpeter on the planet and I wrote many of these tunes with him in mind. So this is a sequel of sorts to 'modern cool.' Also, the way I was hearing the songs in my head had more to do with the guitar than the piano. In a loose way, 'Verse' is a Patricia Barbara homage to Joni Mitchell."
The inspired music is all very much in service of Barber's intricately crafted word structures. The frozen-smile horrors of "The Fire," the brutal self-mutilation of "Pieces," the somnambulist democracy of "Regular Pleasures," are all incisive observations about the soul-destroying nature of contemporary life.
The album ends on a masterpiece, "If I Were Blue." Barber, floating along on a deep, resonant melodic line, likens her mood to striking visual images associated with various artists. "Bring on the pelting rain," she cries, "palpable sensual pain/like Goya in his studio/in the thick of night/absence is/dull and silent."
"Sometimes I start with a melodic or rhythmic hook," Barber explained, "or maybe a harmonic progression. Sometimes I just let my emotions dictate the course. Everyone's written a song about being blue, and while there is a sense of melancholy in this tune, it's also about literally being the color blue.
"My fondest dream would be that my songwriting and performance speak effectively to the past, present and future of the jazz art form that I love," she concluded. "This task is, after all, the task of any artist: to create a ruthlessly individual vision of the art from the inside out.
"These are not mediocre aspirations, but then why waste your time on those? Something much larger than myself and my effort will determine if I have been successful at my artistic mission."