Patricia Barber – Café Blue – Premonition Records 90760-1 180 gram audiophile vinyl (2 discs), 63:39 ****1/2:
(Patricia Barber – piano, vocals; John McLean – guitar; Michael Arnopol – bass; Mark Walker – drums, percussion)
When Café Blue was released by Premonition Records in 1994, two things happened. A “maverick” jazz artist began a sustained, inventive career and a significant audiophile release put the label on the map. Barber’s father, a musician with Glenn Miller, had instilled a respect for jazz arrangement. After paying her dues on the Chicago music scene, her relentless performance schedule garnered an enthusiastic cult following. It didn’t take long for critics to recognize the quirky stylistic approach to jazz. Relying on original material and a mix of pop standards, Barber created albums of musical vision and poetic flair.
Side 1 opens with two original compositions. “What A Shame” is a stark arrangement, that has an evocative, spooky motif. Barber’s smoky vocals exude a pronounced jazzy phrasing, and the attention to detail is captured in the nuanced guitar and percussion. “Mournin Grace” (adapted from a poem by Maya Angelou) is decidedly more up-tempo with its rhythmic piano and fusion-like guitar and drum. A stunning falsetto hovers above the waves of band play. “A Taste Of Honey” is reinvented with a relaxed Latin groove and nimble acoustic guitar solo (John McClean). Another popular classic, “Ode To Billie Joe,” is a slow groove with cool bass riffs (Michael Arnopol), finger snaps and sultry vocals. (…and yes she hits those impossible low notes at the end of the chorus).
A highlight is the introspective “Too Rich For My Blood”. Almost hypnotic, the song is coalesced by the haunting lyrics and vocals (including a wordless vocalese wail at the end). Barber’s melodic piano is effective as is a rumbling drum solo (Mark Walker). Weirdly abstract, “Inch Worm” has a minimalist approach with voice, bass and bongo drum. Here the guitar (with reverberation) expands the aural structure of the ensemble.
There are several forays into “traditional” jazz. Miles Davis’ “Nardis” (the longest track on the album) begins with an elegant classical piano that showcases Barber’s dexterity and prowess. The group explodes into a spontaneous bop frenzy that does justice to the piece. “The Thrill Is Gone” (the Brown Henderson standard) is covered as a gentle swing ballad with subtle tempo shifts. Some of the most tasteful piano runs are found on this cut. The finale, “Yellow Car III” feels like hard bop as Barber performs a scintillating piano solo.
The artistry of Patricia Barber is tied to the superlative technology of this vinyl pressing. Re-mixed at Capitol Records with a Neve 8068 console, EMT plates and a live reverberation chamber, the texture of the sound quality is rich. Barber’s alto is captured vibrantly in its broad depth and soaring upper register. The echoes and fades of the guitar are robust, and the precision of the drums (cymbals, sticks) and percussion (bongo, handclap) is exceptional. There is fluidity in all of the bass tones. Sparse arrangements sound full and multi-dimensional. The HQ-180 pressing is pristine without any pops or hisses. Gatefold jackets and high-gloss packaging add to the luster. The liner notes describe the re-mastering process from engineer, Jim Anderson (who worked on the original recording) and others. Café Blue on audiophile vinyl is as dazzling as SACD or 45rpm analog technology.
[With so little time per side, the often-lower-fidelity groove area near the label is avoided. But you may be a bit shocked at the price of this 33 1/3 double-disc. It’s also available as a Mo-Fi SACD…Ed.]
Side One; What A Shame; Mourning Grace; A Taste Of Honey
Side Two: Ode To Billie Joe; Too Rich For My Blood; Mahna De Carnaval
Side Three: Inch Worm; Wood Is A Pleasant Thing To Think About; Nardis
Side Four: The Thrill Is Gone; Romanesque; Yellow Car III
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