When I listen to Patricia Barber sing, I think of her not so much as a jazz singer than as a poet reciting her work, with the depth and feeling that only the originator of that work can deliver. A poet who happens to be a technically polished pianist, a clever arranger and bandleader. OK, so it’s perhaps more accurate to state that she’s a great poet who is also a legitimate musician. Kind of astonishing when you consider there are scant few these days who are so good at both anywhere near the field of jazz.
Later on this month Barber comes out with her twelfth album, Smash, one that’s certain to be considered one of her finer submissions as a songwriter (as opposed to her equally well-regarded interpretive side, underscored on efforts like her last record The Cole Porter Mix (2008)). Smash finds Barbers not resting on her laurels; she continues to hone her craft, even intently studying scholastic explanations for how stars are formed to construct the cagey lyrics found on “Redshift.”
The title song, however, deals with matters not so much of the mind, but of the heart. Barber has observed how we deal with loss by trying to put on a brave face to the outside world and act as if nothing has happened: “You go to the grocery store, and everything’s the same, which is shocking,” she notes. “It struck me that this is the sound of a heart breaking: silence.”
“Smash” addresses dealing with loss in the context of the termination of a love affair. She waxes philosophically in her ethereal voice about the subtleties around that jarring event accompanied only by her piano: the outward calm is perfectly portrayed. But as Barber continued in her remarks about this song, “I felt that this was an interesting juxtaposition, since the sound of a hear breaking should be the loudest, screamiest, shriekiest combination of sounds there could be.”
With less than two minutes into this four-and-a-half-minute song, Barber concludes her poetry with the lines “this is the sound of a heart breaking, this is the sound of the red on the road…” ushering in the rest of her quartet led by the devastating, screaming, shrieking guitar of John Kregor that takes us to the end. Barber’s softly sung prose had set up this extended moment so well, that no more words were needed, just the mood, properly rendered.
Barber understands that words properly articulated can communicate a lot, and the absence of words can do that, too.