Patricia Barber: Mythologies

Leave it to Patricia Barber-the most fearless, most intellectually stimulating and, by extension, most interesting singer-songwriter-pianist on the American jazz scene-to deliver an album that demands a concurrent crash course in Greek and Roman mythology or, at minimum, a handy copy of the Cliffs Notes to Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Donning her composer hat, then handling the producer reigns in the studio with guitarist Neal Alger, bassist Michael Arnopol, drummer Eric Montzka and a brace of special guests, the Chicago-based multitasker has spent three years reimagining 11 of Ovid’s mythological characters. Marrying hauntingly spare beauty to richly layered complexity, these postmodern jazz paintings suggest Modigliani portraits for the ear (and mind and heart), all wrapped in Barber’s stardust voice, which remains a wondrous study in slightly bemused, aloof intrepidity.

On Mythologies we meet, among others, “Hunger” cast as an emotionally ravenous, insatiable carnivore; “Morpheus” as a welcome merchant of eternal sleep; “Pygmalion” as an iceman who refuses to cometh; and “The Moon” (an earlier treatment of which appeared on Verse, Barber’s previous studio outing from 2002) as a willingly malleable lover.

Like every one of the eight Barber discs that has preceded it, Mythologies is hearty, inspired sustenance expressly reserved for those who consider listening a fully active endeavor.