January 30, 2013
“Smash” and Burn: Patricia Barber Confronts Love and Loss, Head On
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor
Each generation has had its potent songwriters, the composers of music and lyrics that address universal themes – love, loss and social commentary. We’ve moved from George Gershwin and Cole Porter to Rodgers and Hart, from Lennon and McCartney to Joni Mitchell to Nick Drake, and to the jazz genre’s current crop of composer/performers like Esperanza Spalding, Gretchen Parlato, Gregory Porter and Kurt Elling. Yet, be it love, loss or satire, no one among active jazz performers melds notes and words with the powerful fragility, the delicate incision, the brazen honesty of Patricia Barber. As a pianist and vocalist, she is a force to be reckoned with. As a songwriter, she is pure devastation.
Perhaps no recording sums Barber’s talents as fiercely as her Concord debut, Smash. She’s never been one to mince words, even if the words were penned by Cole Porter or John Lennon. Here, as on many of her previous recordings, the words and melodies are entirely her own, the themes primarily of lost love with far less direct political commentary—less overt satire-- as past works. And while original lyrics have always been central to Barber’s songs, more than ever, these are poems set to music, and as poetry, these pieces are sophisticated literature worthy of the New Yorker. It’s a deliberate move for Barber, who noted that “I really want to make an impact and lift the bar on jazz vocals and song repertoire — harmonically, lyrically and rhythmically… I studied the songwriters, but now I just study the poets. I’m trying to make the poetry of a finer order. But I still need to rhyme, because rhyme is rhythm, and rhythm is music.”
Thirteen such poems form the song cycle of Smash, not only Barber’s first for Concord (2013) but the recording debut of a new quartet, including long-time bassist Larry Kohut plus guitarist John Kregor and drummer Jon Deitmeyer. And for the most part, the songs reflect Barber’s decision to create a “syllabic song series” based on the number of beats in each line of poetry (e.g., “The Swim” consists entirely of two-syllable lines; “Spring Song” has three such phonemes per line; “The Wind Song” has six). The approach contributes to a unique sound, which in combination with Barber’s words creates the knives that plunge deep into the listener’s heart… and then twist.
The opening “Code Cool” is one of two referencing science (and here, medical treatment), starting with a haunting bass vamp and percussion scrapings. A very different feel musically, the bossa lift of “Redshift” weaves voice with guitar, as if an updated Jobim who needs anti-depressants; the vocal echoes as if an overdubbing allows Barber to be her own back up singer. The story here puts love into a context referencing Einstein, satellites and “interstellar movement” -- there’s an upbeat quality to the arrangement that belies the text.
Juxtaposing conflicting emotions is one of Barber’s most powerful tools. On the title track, the gentle quiet of the first verse (emotional pain) clashes with the electronic wailing (physical pain?) of the instrumental section, as the lyric notes “so this is the sound of a heart breaking” – largely the theme of album. “It just struck me, as it does everyone who experiences great loss, that on the outside, no one can tell,” Barber explains. “You go to the grocery store, and everything’s the same, which is shocking. It struck me that this is the sound of a heart breaking: silence. You’re alone. And I felt that this was an interesting juxtaposition, since the sound of a heart breaking should be the loudest, screamiest, shriekiest combination of sounds there could be.” Yet on the track titled “Scream” – a piano-centric ballad with a rising ebb and flow, there’s none of the overt raw feeling of “Smash; ” like a silent scream, it’s a controlled counterpart.
The one song that figuratively, if not blatantly, crosses into social commentary, “Devil’s Food” offers bit of upbeat funk as it examines the possibilities of falling in love in the context of the many state initiative on gay marriage. The guitar gets a real wahwah workout in the closing, Barber noting that “It made me mad, and it made me want to make a declaration – but to make it fun.”
There’s no fun in the remaining tracks, but we shouldn’t be looking for laughs and smiles. Barber’s expression of loss can be as brutal as it is beautiful, as if delivered by a knife-wielding waif; Barber fills emptiness with incredible beauty. On “Windsong,” the strings provide a melodic mesh for dark words; while the sadness of “Romanesque” is cloaked in a diaphanous vulnerability. Another delicate ode to lost love, “Spring Song” is filled with Barber’s most deft piano and a forceful, yet wistful, bass solo from Kohut. There’s an underlying syncopation on “The Swim” that comes from the force of the words that slide quickly against a gentle background of strings. Kregor’s guitar is the perfect foil for Barber, as annihilating in its lyricism as is her voice. Unrequited love again surfaces on “The Storyteller,” haunting and painful, piano and bass aligned in counterpoint with lyric and voice. The closing “Missing” was suggested by a woman who wrote Barber about her own experience; Barber chose to address love that waits in vain through the four seasons. Kregor is simply heartbreaking.
The instrumental-only “Bashful” includes a subtle workout on drums, ominous development of the piano’s tale—danger lurks at every turn, reinforce not only by the dark harmonies but by the twists and turns of rhythm and dynamics.
Don’t listen to Smash if you need an uplifting mood or day brightener. This is not it. Yet Smash is not an album to take you down, but a cycle of songs that remind you that there’s life within pain, stubborn hope within loss, beauty in darkness. And a bright future for the art of jazz singing and songwriting. Patricia Barber has plenty more to say.