Barber's sometimes gets more attention for her primitive cool aloofness than for the sheer artistry of her vocal phrasing and, especially, the drama of her pianism. Her voice can give both the steely chill of the femme fatale or the sweetness of a girl longing for love ("Summer Samba"). Her piano often takes over where her voice leaves off, delving into emotional territory only hinted at.
Take "Yesterdays" on her new disc of radical standard interpretations. Long a ballad favorite of subtlists like Miles, Getz and Art Farmer because of its languid melody and pregnant pauses, Barber takes us back to the lyric and the overwhelming sadness of the singer living for yesterdays. Her sweet and sour vocal barely hides the singer's falling apart as the piano matches her emotional pitch. Veterans Marc Johnson and Adam Nussbaum know this territory well (Johnson was Bill Evans' last bassist) and hug Barber's minor clusters and octave voicings with a beautiful synchronicity. There's a reverberating ebb and flow that mirrors the singer's look-back-in-anguish lyric and lets us fall apart where she couldn't.
It's no wonder she's one of the most original interpreters currently playing. Unlike many alleged young lions who spit out the obligatory standard disc, the care in which Barber's selected these tunes shows. One gets the feeling that nothing's here for popularity sake or whim. From better known jazz works like "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "Autumn Leaves" to pop fare like Ray Charles' "You Don't Know Me" and "Alfie" or surprises like Cole Porter's "So In Love", these are all melodies she's grown with and interprets in a striking way.
She gets great support throughout from her two rhythm tandems: the Johnson-Nussbaum pair and her Chicago partners Arnopol and Nussbaum. Charlie Hunter adds some guitar atmospherics. But the treat here is Barber - her rich, endlessly expressive voice and her pluckish piano.