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Patricia Barber: A Fortnight in France

There’s rarely any in-between with vocalists’ live recordings. More often than not they’re muddily recorded “greatest hits” packages that require the artist (and, by extension, the listener) to compete with rattling cutlery and phlegmatic patrons. The exceptions-Garland, Bennett and Shirley Bassey at Carnegie Hall (the latter of which is long overdue on CD), Sinatra at the Sands, Ella and Ellington’s entire Cote d’Azur oeuvre-tend to be extraordinary, rather like bottled energy made up of equal parts performance, electricity and artistic imagination.

Though of a purposeful lower wattage, Patricia Barber’s latest, 10 live tracks assembled from the Chicago-based singer-pianist’s two-week tour of France this past spring, proves a welcome addition to that rarified list of exceptions. Barber, for my money the single-most interesting female American jazz singer on the contemporary scene, has remained an uncompromisingly brilliant innovator ever since the days when it was just her, a piano and a couple dozen devotees shoehorned into the Windy City’s tiny, elegant Gold Star Sardine Bar. I can think of no one else, with the obvious exception of fellow Chicagoan Kurt Elling, with cool enough self-assurance and a hip enough musical sensibility to, over the course of seven studio albums, enliven Gershwin and Porter chestnuts, reinvent pop-rock anthems like “Light My Fire” and “The Beat Goes On,” place tongue firmly in cheek as she plumbs the chauvinistic shallowness of Paul Anka’s “She’s a Lady” and shape original compositions that are unfailingly as sharp and witty as they are poignant. Which is all a roundabout way of saying that A Fortnight in France is, quite unsurprisingly, filled with delightful surprises. A couple of fan favorites-the haunting shards-of-a-busted-relationship lament “Pieces” and shimmering “Dansons la Gigue!” from Verse-are here. Everything else is fresh, new and intoxicating, including the cunning “Gotcha,” a twisted ode to stalker-mentality romanticism, plus utterly magical interpretations of “Laura” (the first version I’ve heard in years to accurately capture the fogged beauty of Otto Preminger’s film heroine), “Blue Prelude,” “Norwegian Wood” and “Call Me” (finally, after endless overly exuberant readings by everybody from Chris Montez to Peggy Lee, rendered as the soft, tender love song it truly is). Until hearing Fortnight, my vote for the year’s outstanding vocal album was reserved for Diana Krall’s The Girl in the Other Room (which, come to think of it, is distinctly Barber-esque). Now, I have to downgrade Diana to a close second, placing Barber at the top of the list.

Originally Published