Few performers in or out of jazz are as consistently brilliant as Patricia Barber. Smash, her first album for Concord Jazz, simply reconfirms Barber’s status as a consummate artist. Her perfectly chilled voice, at once stern and tender, remains singularly compelling, and the fluid intelligence of her playing is typically enthralling. And while it would be unfair to decree Barber nonpareilamong singer-songwriters, these new compositions further validate the assertion that she is one of our very best songsmiths.
Most of the dozen tracks concern affairs of the heart—though, as always, Barber takes a wider view, crafting life rather than love stories. The title track likens heartbreak, which Barber notes emits no sound but should be painfully loud, to car crashes and other thundering disasters. “Romanesque” is a softer take on romantic disconnection, with conflict masterfully established between the sighed lyric and discordant piano chords. “Redshift,” a shimmering bossa nova, literally examines the science of attraction, and “Devil’s Food” is a delectable paean to love’s blindness that champions gay marriage. Shifting gears, “Scream,” a hammer wrapped in silk, unleashes pent-up anger about various societal ills.
As on previous projects, Barber’s scholarly appreciation for poetry also figures into the songcraft. Three tracks contribute to a syllabic song series she is creating, with “The Swim” built entirely of two-syllable lines, “Spring Song” of three-syllable lines and “The Wind Song” of six. Brainy. Beautiful.