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The Patricia Barber Quartet at Jazz Standard

by Mike Engle

Patricia Barber Quartet at Jazz Standard, 1 April 2012.  Photo by Mike Engle

A relatively rare treat recently blew in from the Windy City: the Patricia Barber Quartet, which enjoys an established residency at The Green Mill in Chicago, performed for four consecutive nights at New York City's Jazz Standard. I was able to attend both of Sunday's sets, the last evening of their stay, where, thankfully, Barber's voice showed no hints of being overworked.

The band featured pianist and vocalist Patricia Barber, guitarist John Kregor, bassist Larry Kohut, and drummer Jon Deitemyer. Collectively, the group's greatest attribute was its versatility. The band's music spanned the entire jazz spectrum—from traditional blues to Nat King Cole-style swing, contemporary explorative music (Barber occasionally plucked the piano strings and used a water bottle as a "prepared piano" prop), and everything in between, with seemingly instant transitions. Furthermore, not every song featured all of the musicians, with both of Sunday's sets starting with a trio selection without guitar. Barber also performed several solo piano pieces, as well as heartfelt duets with Kohut on "I Thought About You" and with Kregor on "Missing."

Barber did not sing on each selection, enhancing the group dynamic even more. When she was audible, it felt like there was actually a fifth musician in the band. Though Barber did not take any scatted solos, she did occasionally scat over her piano harmonies while introducing or concluding pieces—a truly enjoyable extra layer to the music.

If one small criticism may be levied against the band's performance, it would be Barber's initial disengagement from the audience. Throughout the first set, Barber failed to announce a single song title or composer; for any particular song—unless I recognized it from the instrumental harmony—I was forced to guess its title based on the lyrics. During the second set, however, Barber addressed the spectators between some of her songs, including an anecdote about "Missing."  (It was written as a commissioned piece, for a fan who enclosed a small personal check with her life story.)  For this very reason, I found the second set much more enjoyable than the first.

All things considered, it was a great evening of jazz. The Patricia Barber Quartet managed to turn every song into a museum-quality piece, even if the concert also exuded a museum-like "do not touch" vibe. It was a treat to be able to see them live, without having to travel to Chicago.