Wow! What a woman! Internationally touring jazz pianist. Subversive alto whose singing soothes and disturbs at the same time. 2003 Guggenheim fellowship winner. Patricia Barber writes smart and plays cool, probing the dark corners and hallways of the human soul, and laying on new layers of emotional varnish to old standards. And her band is smoking, too, the best unit to back up a female vocalist since Joni Mitchell’s all-star Shadows and Light
combo. A Fortnight in France
replicates a typical gig at her regular haunt, the Green Mill in Chicago: a mix of original bop for the 21st century - full of splashes of sounds, clusters of notes, and sly grooves - and deconstructed covers that uncover heretofore unrecognized sharp edges and pointed subtexts.
As the title describes, this live set was captured in the spring of 2004 in four cities in France. Her composition "Gotcha," a study in purple and paranoia, sets the tone of the disc instantly, with creepy, tinkling piano licks and a hot but evenly paced solo by guitarist Neal Alger. Other originals indicate a trend: "Dansons la Gigue!" based on a poem by Verlaine, is sad and loss-obsessed without sacrificing vicious groove; "Crash," an instrumental, is decidedly modern and to intriguing to resist; "Pieces" is similarly haunting, psychological and abstract, but with a cool and bluesy bridge and a bass line by Michael Arnopol - who has gigged and recorded with Barber almost continuously since her first disc, 1989’s Split
- that you can’t let go of.
She brings the same attitude to covers like "Norwegian Wood," a muffled, wintery reading that warms up only to leave you out in the cold in the end, and "Call Me," a popcorn ball turned into a gourmet snack with great percussion by Eric Montzka and another snazzy guitar solo by Alger. I also loved her take on "Witchcraft," the old Sinatra vehicle, which shows off a different side of Barber, but I didn’t care for "Laura"; in fact, I might have left it off the disc. Perhaps her wavering, slightly off vocals were supposed to cool and acerbic, but I just found it annoying.
But nine out of 10 is a smash success in my book. If this is how Barber and her quartet jam at the Green Mill, I’m catching the next flight to the Windy City.