Patricia Barber ‘Smash’ (Concord) 4/5

Chicago has been truly blessed with two of the most singular and innovative jazz vocalists. One, Kurt Elling, has been rightly fêted as the most accomplished male vocalist of his generation. The other, Patricia Barber, has carved out a formidable reputation among jazz cognoscenti, but has yet to reach that bigger audience in the same way that say Diana Krall has. On this latest set, her ability to deliver supremely well crafted, incredibly witty, poetic and often complex lyrics into deeply melodic songs is undiminished and this is indeed her trademark. Retaining the quartet format including guitar which has accompanied most of her career (though with a relatively new set of musicians featuring the excellent John Kregor on guitar), Barber’s subtle approach and understated vocal delivery is as strong as ever and is typfied by the opener ‘Code cool’. For new listeners, if the style takes a little time to digest, then it does enter the subconscious on a longer-term basis and once hooked, you will be forever smitten. Patricia Barber marked herself out as a left-field singer in the 1990s with her chilling take on Sonny Bono’s ‘The beat goes on’ and on the dreamy downtempo number ‘The Swim’ she excels on a song that floats along effortlessly and represents a superior late evening listening experience. The singer’s love of Brazilian music and of Elis Regina in particular invariably creeps into at least one number and here it surfaces in the bossa-infused guitar piece ‘Red Shift’ which is one of the album’s highlights. However, the true beauty of Barber’s voice is probably heard to best effect on ballads and on ‘Spring Song’ it is precisely this aspect of her craft that takes centre stage with fine piano and bass interplay between the vocalist and bassist Larry Kohut. Elsewhere, guitarist Kregor engages in some Methenyesque licks on the forward thinking title track. A welcome addition is the inclusion of a piano trio instrumental ‘Bashful’ that has a rapid flow to it and there is just the faintest hint of Les McCann at one point.

Patricia Barber deserves to be heard on wider scale and with this exciting new formation, a long awaited UK tour would be an enticing prospect. Failing that an extended live set with the new quartet at the Green Mill in her native Chicago would be a most tempting alternative.

Tim Stenhouse