Patricia Barber – Modern Cool – Premonition Records (1998/2012) audio-only Blu-ray 90761-4, 68:43 ****:
(Patricia Barber – piano, table knives on strings, vocals; Michael Arnopol – bass; John McLean – guitar; Mark Walker – drums, percussion; Dave Douglas – trumpet; Jeff Stitely – udu; Choral Thunder Vocal Choir)
When Modern Cool was released in 1998, Patricia Barber was emerging as a jazz artist. This album changed that. Unlike the radio-friendly “jazz” vocalists, she was searching for a different style. With sparse arrangements and less instrumental improvisation, Barber appealed to critics if not a mass audience. Her trademark lower-register vocals were exciting and fresh to some and too risqué for others. Regardless, she held firm on her vision.
Premonition Records has re-mastered Modern Cool to dual-layered (lossless 5.1 DTS-HD MA and 2.0 PCM) Blu-ray audio (without video), with intriguing results. This technology has expanded the aural texture and filled out the arrangements. [Premonition has joined Naxos, 2L, AIX and a couple other labels in the audio-only Blu-ray effort, with the idea that Blu-ray decks now have a higher penetration than SACD decks, although sonic quality is about the same…Ed.] The album is a confluence of blues and jazz with a non-idiomatic framework, featuring original compositions and three covers. The opening track (“Touch Of Trash”) is a menacing tune that relies on smoky vocals, scratchy guitar licks (John McLean) and a “late night” trumpet run (Dave Douglas). Barber’s vocal phrasing is poetic, like the Beat writers. “Winter” extends the moodiness with a pulsating bass line (Michael Arnopol), and primal growling.
Standards are given an adventurous reincarnation. “Light My Fire” by the Doors is captured in a very bluesy dirge. Guitar tonality and effects are invigorated by the new mix. Barber’s voice is wistful and compelling. A touch of mournful trumpet reverberates gracefully, and helps to maintain the slow-burning obsession of the lyrics. A jazz standard, “You & The Night & The Music” is now a bluesy vamp. Barber’s agile touch on piano is impeccable, with graceful subtlety and nuance. Unfortunately, Paul Anka’s “She’s A Lady” (Tom Jones’ schmaltzy hit) suffers from the languid pace.
There are many innovative moments. “Constantinople” is a wild assortment of rhythmic string (piano and bass) play in near-classical ambiance. A Middle Eastern wailing voice, dynamic percussion (Mark Walker) and trumpet flourish weave an unmistakable exotic theme around the melody. However, the blues inspiration permeates a lot of the material. “Let It Rain” is graced with a traditional, soulful translation. Another departure is the bongo opening on “Postmodern Blues” that morphs into avant-garde like piano riffs. An adaption of e.e. cummings poetry (“Love, put on your faces”) is wildly original and benefits from the chorale support from the Choral Thunder Vocal Choir. They are pure gospel elegance on the chorus repeat of “Let It Rain-Vamp”.
Barber’s catalog with Premonition Records has always emphasized advanced studio technology. With Blu-ray the treble is more atmospheric and precise. Lower-end mixing is prominent (although the bass can get distorted at significantly enhanced volume levels). Overall, the sound is fuller and more layered, which makes this album more potent.
TrackList: Touch Of Trash; Winter; You & The Night & The Music; Constantinople; Light My Fire; Silent Partner; Company; Let It Rain; She’s A Lady; Love, put on your faces; Postmodern Blues; Let It Rain – Vamp
A posthumous release of late career Bill Evans in SACD format adds to the formidable legacy.