Smash (Concord Music)
By Brian Arsenault
I have a friend who says all great novels begin with a great first sentence. If so, then perhaps all great albums begin with a great first song.
This one does. “Code Cool” is one of those jazz road markers that should be recorded by generations of singers. It belongs in the American Songbook as do others on this album. “Spring Song” and “The Swim” especially.
Perhaps all that need be said about “Code Cool” is its closing refrain; “I will live as if I were loving.” So should we all. And what piano work as well.
“The Swim” is a love song that begins with a break up . . . “let’s lie the next time.” Unique, original. Like a Chekhov story about people who somehow can’t connect. There are deep waters here.
Barber’s is an original voice within an original voice. That is to say her singing voice is like no one else’s and she composes, plays piano and sings tales that are so strongly her own, unique while still being connected to American jazz traditions.
That seems like artistry to me.
On “Spring Song” Larry Kohut’s bass matches the pathos of the lyrics and when her piano works with him they are briefly lovers.
Barber says she’s a songwriter, not a poet, but writers say a lot of foolish things about their own work. I don’t want to use canned catchwords about her lyrics like “intelligent” or “sophisticated” so I’ll just say that if the following stanzas aren’t poetry, they’ll do until a poem comes along:
the gentle lover calls
but softly on the wind
and softly evening falls. “
tea for two minus one
begets me though alone . . .”
The album throughout leaves me with a sweet sadness, rather like life itself. It’s said on the publicity sheet that Barber’s songs are a long way from “The Man I Love,” maybe so because she’s gay. But I don’t find that the longing in “Missing,” the yearning for someone strong to comfort the singer, is all that distant. A longing that transcends the seasons:
” i’ll stay up
i won’t sleep
till you call.”
Cole Porter was also gay but he gave us lots of songs about romantic love that don’t exclude hetero or homo. Like Barber, he went deeper into the human experience. Great art is like that.
“Devil’s Food” is about sexual confusion way beyond “Lola” — “girl in blue, boy in pink” — but hints at a man-woman connection right along side “boy meets boy, girl meets girl”. The point seems obvious in a way, don’t disparage anyone’s love, it’s hard enough as it is to make it work.
The rest of Barber’s band — Jon Deitemyer on drums and John Kregor on guitars — is as strong as Kohut’s bass and Barber’s own piano playing. Kregor can play delicate acoustic as he does on “Missing” and blast some rock riffs on “Smash.” Deitemyer is strong throughout.
And, oh yeah, one more song mention. “Romanesque” is 140 seconds of crystallized beauty. To me, it defines Barber’s work on this album:
“So gossamer and thin these pale and delicate dreams.”
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