Art and soul

Posted on 10 Aug 2006 at 5:30pm
By Gilbert Garcia – Pop Music Critic

Lesbian pianist’s latest may be smart, but passion is its real charm



INTELLIGENT DESIGN: Patricia Barber uses characters from The Metamorphoses of Ovid as the basis for her new album.

Today’s jazz enjoys a reputation as an intellectual art form. But jazz didn’t start out that way.

In its early years, jazz was considered pop’s crazy cousin, a libidinous brew of tribal beats and wild horns that signaled youth rebellion long before rock “‘n’ roll became cool. It wasn’t until bebop gods like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis took the stage that jazz was elevated to highbrow status.

Modern jazz artists sit at either at the jazzy or the brainy side of this continuum, with few venturing outside their comfort zones.

Taking a daring stab at this divide, lesbian pianist, singer and songwriter Patricia Barber wades into a rock-jazz valley on her newest album, “Mythologies.” Despite the album’s jazz-geek pretensions, the record succeeds not only as an intellectual opus, but as a raw, energetic work of passion.

Those already familiar with Barber music would place her music in jazz’s intellectual camp: dense compositions, coupled with tense, wordy songwriting. “Mythologies,” a song cycle composed around Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” is about as brainy and obtuse as you can get. But set aside the literary references and demanding compositions, and you’re likely to hear more heart than academic posturing.

Some tracks on “Mythologies,” particularly easy-going numbers like “Persephone” and “Narcissius,” neatly fit into the soft-jazz stereotype. Others, however, aren’t easily pigeonholed.

While the cool “Pygmalion” draws on a traditional blues structure, its execution is darker. Electric guitars and a plodding drumbeat give “Orpheus/Sonnet” a mysterious air, while “Whiteworld/ Oedipus” features a dense, funk-fueled mayhem of beats, horns and guitars. Barber’s deep alto voice and cautious phrasing give her work spoken-word air. Smart turns of phrase trip off her tongue like a tricky saxophone solo.

While not quite the electric fusion of artists like Miles Davis or Chick Corea, “Mythologies” defies traditional categories by taking a middle ground between “jazzy” jazz and more abstract modern sounds. In the process, she injects the album with palpable emotion.

During the first few listens of “Mythologies,” if listeners can leave the Roman poetry out of the equation, the music will win them over long before they’ve untangled the lyrics.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, August 11, 2006.

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