Patricia Barber is back. The 57-year-old singer, songwriter, and pianist emerged from her home base of Chicago in the early ’90s with a string of recordings that established her equally in all three categories. Her voice and phrasing were low-slung and cool; she wrote with biting wit and uncommon literacy. She created original arrangements that reimagined pop, both old and new — whether Cole Porter or the Beatles — without distorting its essence. And she was a terrific pianist, with unhurried, swinging phrasing and narrative acuity.
She was back at the Regattabar Wednesday night for the first time in several years, and with Smash (Concord), the first major-label studio album since her last Blue Note CD in 2008 (she has distributed other, live albums through her website). At the show (as on the album), all the old elements were in place. Her opening solo was a reminder of what a good pianist she is, mixing phrases of block chords and spare single-note lines, following exclamations with ruminative keyboard purrs. Here also was a reminder of her stage presence and quiet charisma: bent over the keyboard open-mouthed, or staring up at a corner of the ceiling, erupting in yeahs and yelps — maybe of pleasure, but maybe also just a vocalization of thought.
Her band has turned over since that last Blue Note album — it now includes guitarist John Kregor, acoustic bassist Larry Kohut, and drummer Jon Deitemyer. Kregor’s playing occasionally gave the music more of a rock edge, and on “Devil’s Food” — Barber’s response to attempts to quash gay marriage — he provided the required disco funk (“Boy meets boy/Girl meets girl/Given any chance/to fall in love/they do do do do do”).
But this was still a very jazzy Barber, enhanced by the flexibility of Kohut and Deitemyer, from vamps to swing walks or funk, brushes to sticks. My only complaint is that Barber didn’t do enough singing, and that her vocals — even given her sterling diction — didn’t always project all those great words. There were only eight songs in the roughly 65-minute set, with long stretches of instrumentals. But there was one quiet gem: Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” with just voice and piano. For once you could hear every word. “I wrote that,” Barber joked.
, Patricia Barber, regattabar, jazz