Jazz Album of the Week: Patricia Barber’s Clique, a Masterclass in Reinventing Standards
August 9, 2021. When you listen to a Patricia Barber album, you're listening to a jazz album, but that’s not all you're listening to. Clique, just Barber’s second release since 2013’s Smash and her first album of standards since 2000’s Nightclub showcases Barber’s fluency within a vast breadth of motifs.
And yet, what Barber does is much less about mimicry and so much more about acknowledging well-worn tropes and motifs and molding them to fit a musical worldview that’s very perceptive, intellectually honest, and, at times, compellingly dark.
With a beat poet’s sensibility, Barber’s rhythmic vocal delivery and piano playing are undeniably and unpretentiously cool. Often you get the sense that she exists in the rarefied liminal space between performance poetry and cabaret-style vocal jazz. And yet, her interpretations of pop and jazz standards here, while highly stylized, are sufficiently accessible so as to be maximally hummable for hours, even days, after listening. For those who appreciate entertainment existing at the intersection of highbrow and middlebrow, Clique is for you.
All of Barber’s accompanying musicians do a thoroughly professional job, but bassist Patrick Mulcahy must be singled out as exceptional. Simultaneously explosive and controlled, he’s like an extension of Barber’s will, or, perhaps more accurately, one of Barber’s myriad musical personalities. His ostinatos—as bouncy and funky as anything I’ve heard issue from an acoustic bass—offer the consummate framing for Barber’s low-vibrato alto and provide the guardrails for a pianism that seeks novel solutions to the musical conflicts she revels in creating.
Barber’s “Mashup,” her lone original here, offers perfect illustration of this last point. Mulcahy’s bass ostinato hooks you immediately, throwing you head-first into the tune’s vibe, while Jon Deitemyer’s drums, like a guided missile, are devastating and precise. Both are great on their own, but, in the context of the group, are especially excellent as foils for Barber’s probing, dissonant chords, which reveal her knack for cultivating tension and artfully finding resolution in ways that aren’t predictable.
And speaking of unpredictable, listen to Barber’s transformations of “Shall We Dance?” and “The In Crowd.” What separates the latter, a Barber-Mulcahy duet, from most other Ramsey Lewis-like retreads of this one is an approach that eschews an ironic, satirical reading in favor of one that is unapologetically faithful to the lyrics’ plain meaning. Because she rejects the temptation to sound cynical, detached and clever, she actually transcends the facial absurdity of the lyrics and convinces you that she, in fact, is the coolest thing yet to come down the pike.
Meanwhile, in Barber’s hands, Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s hit from The King and I is treated more cynically. Stripped of its glossy, childlike veneer, the conception of romance that Barber presents here is not blithe or consequence-free but potentially fraught with obstacles, sacrifice, and heartbreak—and, yet, it might still be very much worth taking the chance.
Jim Gailloreto’s tenor sax solo breaks the tune into two distinct parts; Barber returns after the interlude less guarded, buoyed with the anticipation of love’s intoxicants yet retaining the firmly planted feet of someone who’s played this game before.
Barber is a gifted vocal stylist and a formidable piano player. But it’s her command of all the subtle, in-between emotional shades that color the human experience and her ability to present all of them through music that makes what she does art. Her take on Lerner and Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night” is a great illustration. For those used to the exhilarating delirium of Julie Andrews’ version, this may be an acquired taste. But Barber’s is noteworthy because it places the classic in a totally different context. It’s nostalgic, on one hand, but it’s also presented with the benefit of the kind of hindsight earned only after years of life experience.
Jazz writer Thomas Conrad describes the dynamic perfectly in Clique’s liner notes. “[Barber] tends to turn things dark,” he says. “But her darkness is never simple. It is like the darkness of a Rembrandt painting: a sliver of light is always allowed into the chamber, revealing unexpected details within the shadows.”
The Iberian quality of Neal Alger’s acoustic guitar evokes the very retrospective brand of wistfulness that I suspect Barber is going for on “I Could Have Danced;” it’s the right table-setter for the ethereal, kaleidoscopic piano solo that follows.
But Alger is at his best exactly where you think he would be, on Barber’s Portuguese-language rendition of Jobim’s “One Note Samba.” Barber seems totally at ease in Jobim’s native tongue, and Alger’s solo passes on guitar—as well as his accompaniment—are all atmospherically perfect. She’s released this record at the perfect time because this one encompasses everything that goes along with a late-summer evening on the beach. There’s no shame if, with drink in hand, you shed a tear or two wondering where exactly the summer has gone.
The two most promising tunes in terms of high-volume radio play might be Clique’s bookends, “This Town” and “All in Love is Fair.” The former, originally written by Lee Hazelwood for Frank Sinatra’s The World We Knew (1967), is a captivating opener. Barber, with that natural R&B feel, is rhythmically excellent both vocally and instrumentally, and it’s here where we’re introduced to the dialogue between Barber and Mulcahy that will form the backbone of the entire album.
The closer meanwhile, famous as a hit for both Stevie Wonder and Barbara Streisand, is an oft-admired, sparingly attempted vocal crucible with the potential to expose the vulnerable. Barber, however, navigates its challenges with aplomb, closing with a tune that’s as emotionally honest as the opener is strutting and self-assured. So which one, you might ask, is the real Barber? I think the answer has to be all of them.