The singer-pianist performed a solid, sometimes daring, two-set show that featured instrumental and vocal numbers, originals and covers.
Barber performed with her stunning quartet, which includes longtime bassist Michael Arnopol, guitarist Neal Alger and drummer Eric Montzka. Each musician is given room to stretch and take off on flights of improvisation before bringing the song back to Barber. When they are not on the road, they play Mondays at the Green Mill, an old speakeasy on the city’s North Side. The intimate club serves as Barber’s workshop.
A recent Green Mill show had a more experimental and off-the-cuff feel to it than a concert she would perform on a tour stop. Still, it had the core elements of a Barber show, including a diverse set list and Barber’s quiet intensity that boils at a low simmer whether she is playing an intricate original song or trotting out a trusty standard like "S’Wonderful."
On this night, she test drove a couple of new numbers. Barber is working on a jazz song cycle based on Greek mythology. Not your typical jazz chanteuse material, but Barber isn’t your average girl singer. She’s a strong bandleader who pushes musical boundaries. In some ways, she is to jazz what Patti Smith is to rock an original voice armed with edgy, whip-smart lyrics that speak up rather than down to an audience.
Show highlights included "Dansons La Gigue" and "Pieces" both from 2002’s "Verse." "Call me a doctor or a structural engineer," she sang on "Pieces." "Draft me a past and a future that consent to adhere...Give me a pill that makes cohesion a pharmacological thing." Barber sings her sly lyrics as if she were confessing a dark secret.
Paul Falk, a singer who studied under Barber, provided vocals on a few numbers, including a tribute to Shirley Horn.
Barber led the group from behind the piano. Her too-brief solos were vibrant and fluid. As she played, her head would tilt so her ear was just inches from the keys. She was lost in the music as were the people in the standing-room audience.