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January/February 2001

Patricia Barber
Nightclub
Blue Note Records

For a cult singer with a growing audience, an album of standards seems a good way to attract even more listeners. Nightclub, which despite its title is a studio recording, may do that for Patricia Barber. A keen sense of drama supports her interpretation of lyrics. She has a pleasantly round contralto, accompanies herself with skill at the piano and improvises competently. Her selection of songs and sidemen reflects taste and a penchant for the unusual or forgotten.

Eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter comes in from the edges of experimental jazz to back her on three pieces. On one of the CD's most satisfying tracks, Hunter's fills behind Barber on Lil Hardin Armstrong's "Just for a Thrill" hang in perfect rhythmic balance with the vocal. Hunter also comps and solos to great effect on another unexpected entry, the 1966 pop hit "A Man and a Woman." Marc Johnson and Adam Nussbaum on some tracks, Michael Arnopol and Adam Cruz on others, provide sensitive and appropriate accompaniment on bass and drums. Johnson's basslines on "Autumn Leaves" and "Yesterdays" stimulate Barber's most interesting piano work on Nightclub. The collection creates a sultry late-night atmosphere.

Now for the bad news: Barber's wandering intonation takes the edge off both of those performances and several others. With the slight cover of duo or trio accompaniment and intimate recording technique, sharp notes ("Yesterdays") or flat notes ("Autumn Leaves," "All or Nothing at All") leap out at the listener. I concede the possibility that she may choose to go out of tune for effect. Still, out of tune is out of tune. When an artist is her own producer, a danger is the likelihood that no one will point out such matters and call for a retake.

Originally published in January/February 2001
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