J a n u a r y   2 0 0 1


The bitch speaks volumes
Patricia Barber and a city of two tales
by Mark Anderson

"The bitch speaks."

So said a self-referential Patricia Barber more than a year ago -- the laughter-provoking utterances finally coming five songs into a sparsely attended Aladdin Theater show. Barber returned to Portland Dec. 6 and found the piano bench and several hundred jazz aficionados tucked beneath the third floor of the Crystal Ballroom in Lola's Room.

Not-so-dull roar: Barber's essential 1998 release, Modern Cool.

"Don't remember saying it," she laughed. "I do remember the place being empty. Those weren't the best of times."

Which suggests that Portland, for Barber, has become a city of two tales. And the "bitch" remark said plenty: five songs-worth of seeming standoffishness, then three little syllables supplying a torrent of personality -- and a portent of wider recognition.

Flash forward to Lola's, where Barber fashioned a vigorous 70 minutes of standards and pop, mixing voluptuous vocals with animated instrumentals to display a singing, playing, songwriting triple threat.

Add a handful of top-shelf recordings and her aura of inscrutability -- and call it jazz quintessence.

Barber's trio at Lola's, including bassist Michael Arnopol and drummer Tony Pensiote, sailed through spirited readings of "All the Things You Are," "Caravan" and "Autumn Leaves," each player taking generous solos.

"Traveling as a trio is good," Barber said. "The audience really gets a chance to hear us all play."

These days Barber, a Chicagoan, embodies a jazzy John Lennon, cast opposite Diana Krall's Canadian-style Paul McCartney. Together, they elicit the beginnings of a 21st Century post-bop Mount Rushmore: two chanteuses playing old-school piano and singing their way to the top of the idiom's charts. But Barber's is the much darker muse.

Yet, the crux of her karmic cool is an uncanny power over pop. Barber's recordings frequently meld bebop into the likes of "Black Magic Woman," "Light My Fire," "Ode to Billie Joe," Sonny Bono's "The Beat Goes On" and "She's a Lady," the Tom Jones hit.

At Lola's, she even made good on Joni Mitchell's suddenly popular-at-the-holidays "River" (the 1971 tune appears on recent seasonal offerings from Linda Ronstadt and Travis, while Robert Downey Jr. poignantly crooned a slice on TV the other week: "It's coming on Christmas, they're cutting down trees / They're putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace / Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on ...). Barber gave it a new winter coat.

Then, her own "Postmodern Blues," from 1998's essential Modern Cool, offered to boil the entire last century down to a dull roar -- including the hard-to-argue observation that "Bill Gates has won." Knowingly, she further surmised: "1900 began the obsession with function as form / With a hammer and a nail and a paintbrush and a camera they storm / In Russia the Bolsheviks conquer, the masses want more / Karl Marx has gone -- I've got the postmodern blues …"

But it was during an emotive, reciprocating encore, "You Are My Sunshine," that Barber displayed the ultimate goods. The deceptively simple lyric transformed into ultra-cool human pathos, channeling the maximum power of the art form through a seemingly pedantic folksong everyone learned at camp.

Such familiarity served as a behind-the-curtain look at the magical free-for-all bridging rudiment and improvisation -- a dazzling trip to bop college for the novice, an old hipster's refresher course, and everything in between.

The bitch speaks volumes.

A word about the intimate but awkward Lola's: The $20 Barber show featured bleeping cash registers, too-loud (and too few) bartenders and what sounded like a police-band radio -- a police-band radio -- that blurted reports from the mean streets at several inopportune times!

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and visit prior editions of tripewriter.

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