It’s easy to take for granted the musical treasures in our midst for decades on end.
But drop in on a long-running engagement, as I did Monday evening, and you’re reminded of how a seemingly ordinary appearance can achieve extraordinary artistic results.
Chicagoan Patricia Barber has been performing weekly at the Green Mill Jazz Club since the early 1990s, but much has changed during that vast span of time. Most important, Barber long ago began evolving from a fine entertainer into a first-rate pianist, uncommonly subtle vocalist and composer of exquisitely polished art songs embracing jazz and classical traditions.
So the audience that Barber has built through the years comes to her performances with somewhat different expectations than one usually encounters in prominent jazz rooms. The energy and rambunctious spirit that defines the Green Mill on weekends gives way to a hushed, intensely focused ambience, almost as if listeners were attending a lieder recital in a highbrow concert hall (albeit with rather more swing and between-song patter than you’d encounter there).
If the wordless vocals with which Barber opened Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love” suggested she was finding her bearings regarding pitch, it didn’t take more than a few bars before she was reminding listeners of the distinctiveness of her vocals. The liquidity of her lines, delicacy of her expression and otherworldly quality of her tone pointed to a singer who has honed a profoundly autobiographical sound. By the time she reached the recap of the tune, she was fuller of voice, offering the legato phrases, breathy low notes, long-held whispers and dramatic pauses that conjure an air of intimacy.
That Barber began the night’s singing with music of Porter made perfect sense, and not only because she addressed the songwriter’s work head-on in her 2008 album “The Cole Porter Mix.” For the hyperliterate character and gentle melodic currents of Porter’s works long have been a leading influence on Barber’s songwriting, as she underscored with “Pygmalion,” from her “Mythologies” album of 2006. Inspired by Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Barber’s “Mythologies” offered tautly compressed character sketches of various mythological figures.
The sheer verbal economy with which Barber evoked an artist’s decidedly unrequited love for a cold-stone statue in “Pygmalion” stands as something of a marvel. For if she had done nothing more than recite these words, listeners would have been hearing poetry of fierce imagery with nary a syllable to spare.
But to hear these sentences in an austere and mysterious jazz setting was to understand why Barber has developed such a devoted following: The cerebral quality of her words and atmospheric nature of her music credit her audience with the intelligence to understand her message and the patience to allow it to unfold without haste.
As if to give listeners a chance to exhale amid all this intensity, Barber and the trio launched into a muscular, instrumental account of Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.” The glistening quality of Barber’s right-hand runs and the use of repeated notes to convey rhythmic and harmonic tension illuminated the increasing communicative power of her pianism. Meanwhile, the alacrity with which she and her colleagues switched from fortissimo to pianissimo in a moment’s notice said a great deal about how acutely these musicians listen to each other.
And no one could miss those mighty double octaves Barber thundered at the lowest reaches of the keyboard.
“I find that with lower notes, I can bury anyone on stage,” Barber quipped to the audience before hammering a couple more low-register blasts.
“It feels good!”
That cathartic release set the stage for more introspective original songs to come.
In “Red Shift,” from her “Smash” album of 2013, Barber somehow drew upon a litany of scientific and astronomical terms to capture the fading light of a romance. “Pallid Angel,” a work-in-progress, emerged as one of Barber’s most ethereal songs, its words and musical phrases reaching for the mystical.
The set’s artistic climax came with “Muse,” from a still-evolving Barber song cycle on the nature of singers and singing. Barber unveiled the song in 2016 at the Harris Theater during the Ear Taxi Festival, and it was intriguing to encounter then. Heard again in the close quarters of the Green Mill, where every vocal nuance mattered, the piece conveyed added meaning and emotional content. Its contemplation of the relationship between the divine and the mortal, between muse and musician, represents a high point in Barber’s songwriting.
In both music and word, Barber invited listeners into a realm of imagination more often found in novels and cinema than in contemporary songwriting. It takes a brave soul to attempt this in a jazz club, and an intrepid audience to follow her there.
Both were present on this evening.