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Jazz Review

A Once-Daring Patricia Barber Goes Mainstream

November 13, 1998|DON HECKMAN

Four years ago, singer-pianist Patricia Barber, virtually unknown to Southland jazz fans, made an impressive debut appearance at LunaPark. Quirky and idiosyncratic, she brought consistently new ideas to a program of familiar standards.

In the intervening years, Barber has become far more widely known, receiving rave reviews for her recordings and her live performances from, among others, Playboy, the San Francisco Chronicle and Down Beat.

But her return to LunaPark on Wednesday night was unexpectedly problematic on several counts. Accompanied this time by a full rhythm team of guitar, bass and drums, much of Barber's work had a predictable, mainstream quality that was considerably different from the spare but fascinatingly off-center piano-bass dyad of her earlier appearance. The net result was that the standards she chose to sing--"You're My Everything," "The Look of Love" and the Doors' rock classic "Light My Fire"--while well-played and attractively sung, were generally lacking the probing creativity of what once seemed to be a singular style.

Which is not to say that there weren't some interesting moments recalling Barber's more cutting-edge aspects. Her original "Post-Modern Blues" was an amusing paean to millennium-turning angst. And "Mourning Grace" set Maya Angelou's poem in a busy but compelling framework of rhythm.

Barber's performance, nonetheless, never quite coalesced in the fashion that her obvious talent deserves. Less edgy than her earlier outing, it sacrificed much of the uniqueness of both her originals and her interpretive works. At the same time, paradoxically, her visual presentation remained somewhat off-putting, with her black undertaker's suit, the loose-hanging hair that obscured her face, and minimal spoken interaction with her listeners. (Nor did she help matters by failing to offer an explanation for why the audience had been kept waiting for more than half an hour beyond the program's scheduled start time.)

Still one of the potentially impressive new talents of the decade, Barber needs to find a more centered musical focus and, perhaps most important, make some reasoned decisions about the overall direction of her performing career.

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