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Mr. C's CD Review: Patricia Barber “Higher”

Updated: Sep 4, 2019

By Jeff Cebulski

Patricia Barber Higher

Patricia Barber – Piano, voice

Patrick Mulcahy – Bass

Jon Deitemyer – Drums

Neal Alger – Acoustic guitar

Jim Gailloreto – Tenor saxophone

Katherine Werbiansky – Lyric soprano vocals

As a fan of Chicago jazz, I cannot underemphasize the importance of spending at least one Monday night at the Green Mill with Patricia Barber. Sure, we have her albums, most of them studio made (with two notable exceptions). I don’t mind them at all, but the way to “get” Barber is to see and hear her live: the way she mixes her personal selections with classic fare (like her Cole Porter faves); the syncretic, interpersonal relationship she has with her bandmates, especially her bassist; the umpteenth version of whatever tune, reexamined in real time to expose its eternal value; the view of Barber crouched over the keyboard, her face straining as she tries to hear what her muse (Bill Evans?) wants her to discover within the piano keys.

Another joy is to witness the evolution of Barber’s compositions, as she uses the Monday crowd as a sounding board. From late 2018 into the spring of 2019, Barber gradually revealed the selections on her new album, Higher, which joins releases like Mythologies and, in a more angular vein, Verse and Smash, in demonstrating the breadth of her interests beyond what we normally consider to be “nightclub jazz.” Higher mostly consists of a suite, Angels, Birds, and I . . ., that seems to address various natural and preternatural stimuli that initiate much of human art: the muse itself, the seasons, dreams and longings (including lust), and iconoclasts of the natural world. And if one does not “get” the intent to be extra generic, there’s a piece called “The Opera Song,” which has a second rendition on this album sung by an actual opera singer, Katherine Werbiansky.

Now that I have listened to this album in its established medium, having heard several live renditions before and after, my bias for Barber-live remains intact, without losing respect for her clear intention to have these performances stand out beyond her other established, live, medium. I think the difference, for me, is that Higher is generally an austere, simply produced occasion that, perhaps in another time, would have received a grander treatment, like for Mythologies. Therefore, in my view, hearing these renditions live coalesces the performer with the material in a more effective way. Barber’s live performances evince her connection to her playing and voicing more dramatically than a studio recording can usually achieve.

Still, this new album bears repeated listening well. Its relative simplicity seems dedicated to the songs that clearly address the context of creation: “Muse,” “Surrender,” “Voyager,” and “Higher” (written for her mother). “Surrender” is amplified by an exquisite Spanish guitar solo from Neil Alger. A metaphorically stated Christmas romance song, “Pallid Angel,” is elevated by a sensuous tenor sax interlude from Jim Gailloreto.

As for her trio, one notes the exquisite bass work of Patrick Mulcahy, whose presence provides continual contrapuntal companionship. Drummer Jon Deitemyer is generally understated in this environment; we hear more of him during the last part of the release, when the trio gets to play more jazz-oriented material, like Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way.” Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Love,” in hushed tones, and Paul Webster/Sammy Fein’s “Secret Love,” a rushed treat, are a yin-yang of theme. With the exception of Guaraldi-like moments of “Sweet Way,” this is not a noisy collection. Even “Secret Love,” delivered bebop-style, sounds reined in.

That being said, a portion of Higher clearly rises to the level of wit we have witnessed during Barber’s career. “The Opera Song” operates in a comedic yet empathetic context, as Barber transposes herself into the that world: “In my next life, I long to be / the prima donna with the sterling C / In sotto voce I whisper lies / While the mezzo tries to harmonize.” Live, the song comes off as at least satirical, but the album version is careful to suggest Barber means it. The combination of respect and comic observation positions the singer as one who sardonically identifies with her protagonist (Barber mentions, in her notes, her actual experience performing with opera star Renée Fleming) in a caricatured role-playing environment, while suggesting she could easily become ingratiated with “Simon Boccanegra, Giuseppe Verdi, Desdemona, Donizetti / Don Giovanni, Violetta, Cellini, Puccini / Poppea, Tosca, Bellini.”

Another intriguing metamorphosis occurs right after. In “The Albatross Song,” Barber personifies a suburban woman with two men, a husband and an Australian lover, the “albatross.” Is there some upper class babe the singer has in mind, one who marries rich but loves in the wild? “My husband, the sovereign / Suburban overlord / Lexus LX / But his queen is bored . . .”

The alternative version of “The Opera Song” sounds like an experiment. Werbiansky certainly provides operatic ethos, but the irony of Barber’s testimony is replaced with her piano accompaniment, played with appropriate dramatic élan. The opera song, in this fashion, thus turns out to be not quite an opera song after all. But it was fun as a “good try.”

Higher finds Patricia Barber in a pensive, observational mood while the creative fires burn brightly, produced to emphasize lyrics and concept. The album as a whole feels a bit truncated, more skeletal than full: the body gets more weight in live performance. Yet, it deftly demonstrates the element that has kept us Barber fans going all these years—the intricate trio that provides a setting for the sincere, humble, irresistible talent of a Chicago gem.

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