Sample the essence

Forget about lesbian chic; that’s so early ’90s. Now, lesbian cool is where it’s at.

“Cool is about self possession,” explains jazz artist Patricia Barber, “calling attention to the essence of the thing itself, rather than an effort to bring attention.”

Cafe Blue (1994) and Modern Cool (1998), her most recent CDs, are all you need to get the essence of Barber.

Of the two, Cafe Blue has a more intimate, sensuous quality. Thematically, it has a limited scope and its arrangements are more spare, which makes it more successful than its ambitious follow-up. Cafe Blue also has a greater number of jazz standards, including the finest version of “The Thrill Is Gone” since Chet Baker’s 1953 definitive recording. The stand-out track here is “Too Rich For My Blood,” an eight-minute epic where Barber’s voice soars to high notes of exquisite agony.

Modern Cool picks up from where Cafe Blue leaves off, but its interest in twentieth-century political commentary makes it broader in range, though equally hard hitting. There are more original compositions, and Barber’s skills as a lyricist have been sharpened in the four year hiatus between the two CDs.

The selection here is more eclectic but the voice – ah, that luscious voice – and impeccable, wry delivery remain the same. Barber is as at home with the lesbian camp of “She Is A Lady” as she is with the devastatingly sad story of the other woman in “Silent Partner,” and the vocal experimentation and eastern sounds of “Constantinople.”

“Postmodern Blues” and “Company” are clever (way too clever lyrically, at times) political statements about life at the end of the millennium, complete with inevitable references to MTV, Bill Gates and the call-waiting generation.

Barber’s combination of intensity and quietness, familiarity and innovation is what sets her apart from other jazz vocalist-pianists. Both CDs owe a great deal to Barber’s long standing quartet Michael Arnopol (bass), Mark walker (drums), John Mclean (guitar) and, on Modern Cool, Dave Dougals (trumpet) – and, of course, Barber on piano.

For those hungry for something new in music, Modern Cool won’t disappoint.

If you are completely hooked by the magic of Barber – and chances are you will be – then check out her two earlier albums, A Distortion of Love (1992) and Split (1989). The latter has not been reissued by Barber who released it on her own independent label Floyd. “I guess I don’t have enough capitalist zeal,” she says.

So ironic. So postmodern. So cool.

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