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Patricia Barber
Live: A Fortnight in France

Review By Phil Gold
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Patricia Barber Live A Fortnight in France

LP Number: Blue Note JP 5007 

 

  Would I like to review a Classic Records 200 gram Quiex Super Vinyl Profile release of a brand new Patricia Barber release? Would I ever! Barber's earlier discs Café Blue and Modern Cool are definitive audiophile releases, remarkable not just for their sensational sound but for the amazing renditions of familiar favorites such as "Light My Fire," "A taste of Honey," "Nardis" and "Ode to Billy Joe." These strikingly different performances mark out a very special jazz talent. Then there is the rich vein of original material, exemplified by the passionate and intimate song, "Too Rich For My Blood."

One word that comes to mind to describe Barber's work is uncompromising. Sometimes you might prefer her to lighten up a little, but you know this won't happen. Each idea is fully worked out, and songs can take on an extended length, especially when she picks a slow tempo. More than with other artists, I find myself cherry picking the tracks I want to hear and skipping the rest.

Café Blue dates from 1994 and Modern Cool from 1998. Is she as original now as she was then? Is the sound quality still in the demonstration class?

Live, A Fortnight in France is a compilation of ten tracks recorded from a series of three live concerts in France (in Metz, La Rochelle and Paris) in March and April of 2004. Barber, on piano, is supported by Neal Alger on guitar, Michael Arnopol on bass and drummer Eric Montzka. Arnopol is the only member of her new band to appear on the earlier albums.

It is easier to deal with the sound quality first. Excellent pressings on high quality vinyl, spread over four sides, ensure that any sonic compromises are minimized. The sound is spacious, relaxed, and particularly kind to the percussion, so often the bane of otherwise excellent recordings. But something is missing on this recording, and I pulled out the earlier CDs for a quick comparison. Sadly the live performance simply doesn't have the presence of the great earlier recordings. There are advantages to being in a studio, after all. The biggest disappointment is the precise deep bass of Michael Arnopol, which has morphed here into a lighter and less focused sound. I'm not saying the sonics are poor, far from it, but this is not the demonstration class sound I was hoping for. There is far less dynamic range in the recording, while Barber's voice, more distant and less earthy than before, exhibits the occasional sibilance.

She still has a way of taking a familiar tune and making it completely her own. This time it's "Norwegian Wood". Very few Beatles covers make the grade. George Martin's genius was to find the perfect arrangement for each song. How rare to find a cover that stands comparison with the original. Joe Cocker's "With a Little Help From My Friends" and "Ticket To Ride" by Vanilla Fudge come to mind. You have to take a completely original approach if you want to stand a chance. Barber opens with spoken word, reminding me at first of Peter Sellers on his grandiloquent cover of "A Hard Day's Night". To sing the familiar lyrics "I once met a girl / or should I say / she once met me" is perhaps to set yourself up for failure. So she simply tells you the story, with a very understated musical accompaniment. But this track grows on you, and soon she completely wins you over with sparkling jazz improvisations on the simple chord structure of the great John Lennon tune. Very subtle drumming floats this music along and it becomes increasingly funky. This is ultimately a mind-blowing performance.

Petula Clark made Tony Hatch's "Call Me" a big hit in the sixties. This is another winner for Patricia Barber, although her performance here is more straightforward than on "Norwegian Wood". She infuses the song with Latin heat. The music is understated and the quartet works particularly well together. "Witchcraft" features some interesting piano from Barber and subtle percussion fro Eric Montzka and a beautiful guitar sound from Neal Alger. "Laura" has made a deep impression on some reviewers, but I must simply admit this track leaves me unmoved. The last of the five tracks penned by other musicians is "Blue Prelude". Barber plays piano in an impressionist style, with excellent interplay with Michael Arnopol on bass, displaying a close understanding developed over many years of collaboration.

Barber's own compositions cover a wide range of moods. The opening track "Gotcha" features a fine but strange guitar solo that brings to mind the great Bill Frisell. The percussion is to the fore on this jazzy number, and it sounds much better than any CD player can reproduce, with tremendous transient snap and lots of detail but no induced listener fatigue. "Dansons La Gigue!" is a gentle sad love song to words by Paul Verlaine. The extended instrumental number "Crash" features high-energy pianism from Barber. The power and range of her playing seems to have developed markedly over the years.

My favorite Barber composition here is "Pieces", a startling, intimate number with amazing lyrics. "There's a piece on the chair / a piece in the hall / a nice piece of me / stuck to the wall". And that's just for starters. How about "Give me a pill that makes cohesion a pharmacological thing / bring me the tape and the twine / the blueprint design to fit the scraps and the threads to the feet and the legs."  "Pieces" is more together, funky and energetic than the other tracks, and the bass playing excels in propelling the music along. I love it!

The most controversial number here is "WhiteWorld," an anti-colonial rant in Barber's inimitable spoken-word style. As she quotes Sophocles, African rhythms intrude and Eric Montzka plays an extensive drum solo. Here is a sample of the lyrics: "To name is to own / to market is to steal / I'm a gangster in a Hummer / and this cuture will yield to me / WHITEWORLD / My policy is straight / my publisher primed / the natives will not resist this time".

So there you have it, a very mixed bag. There are some startling achievements in sound, composition, arrangement and performance here, but I miss the concentration, coherence and presence of her best earlier offerings.

 

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