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Arts & Entertainment Preview - November 1999

Popular Music and Jazz
B Y   B O B   B L U M E N T H A L   &   C H A R L E S   M.   Y O U N G

Windy City Postmodern

   Kind of Blue: Barber

There is an iconoclasm to Patricia Barber's music that extends beyond sound and substance. She composes melodies filled with odd time signatures and hypnotic patterns suggesting minimalism, and writes literate lyrics that are mordant and bluntly poetic, while her stark and often contemplative vocals are set against a piano style suffused with complex ideas and advanced harmonies. Barber has also been a committed homebody who has worked primarily around Chicago since 1984 (with time out for a postgraduate degree from Northwestern) and recorded two heralded albums for the local Premonition Records rather than submit to major-label marketing strategies. The big time has finally come calling, and it is characteristic of Barber that, rather than abandoning her independent base outright, she has entered with Premonition into the first distribution effort ever undertaken by the legendary Blue Note imprint. To celebrate the merger, a live "extended play" collection called Companion was taped in July at her regular haunt, Chicago's Green Mill. It is a fitting sampler of Barber's intelligence, wit, and command of an audience, with three typically left-field cover tunes (a dryly infectious "The Beat Goes On," a ceremonial "Black Magic Woman," and the if-you-dare "Use Me") and a like number of originals that skewer current fixations with exhibiting the right attitude and owning the right accoutrements. Blue Note is also putting Barber's previous discs into wider circulation, and Companion should whet appetites for last year's excellent and lengthier Modern Cool, featuring the chilling original ballad "Silent Partner" and a brilliant setting of the e. e. cummings poem "Love, put on your faces." -- B.B.

Get Up, Stand Up

The way he is: Lucky Dube

The greatest reggae singers -- Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff -- tend to be tenors with a touch of sandpaper in their vocal cords. The slightly rough edge creates an impression of innocent sincerity and boyish vulnerability that can come close to melodrama when the lyrics get to yearning for love and/or justice. Lucky Dube, a handsome South African with Marley-level charisma, which is to say his charisma cup runneth over, extends and expands this tradition with The Way It Is (Shanachie), an album of shimmering melodic beauty and fiercely persuasive political declamation. Imagine Sam Cooke singing the Book of Jeremiah with a little advice for the romantically challenged tossed in for seasoning. Dube, who used to denounce the apartheid government of South Africa, now denounces the present government in "Crime and Corruption," a proper jeremiad about the formerly oppressed becoming the oppressor. His vision of his homeland is by no means dreary, however. In "Let the Band Play On" he sings about the police arriving halfway through a wonderful party. The neighbors have complained that the music isn't loud enough, so the police demand that the band turn up. Now, that's an enlightened society, even if there is a lot of crime and corruption. Dube's delightful sense of humor also shows up in the liner notes, in which he mocks the grandiosity and greed of show business by claiming that he's done everything on the album himself and that the backup musicians have paid him money just to be listed on it. Righteous politics, sing-along melodies, and some major-league laughs -- that's the way The Way It Is is and ought to be. -- C.M.Y.

Double Triple Play

For the past decade the guitarist John Abercrombie has been demonstrating an alternative approach to the ensemble known in the jazz world as the organ trio. He has done it with his own acerbic, constantly surprising solos and compositions, the equally cliché-free organ and writing of Dan Wall, and the channeled explosions of the drummer Adam Nussbaum. After three excellent trio albums they are joined by three guests on Open Land (ECM), and the program of eight Abercrombie originals and one collective improvisation is a marvel of gently twisted lyricism. The trio once again creates a quizzical, often otherworldly blend that brings the guests right into their inimitable atmosphere. The tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, whose steely embellishments elevate the ballad "Spring Song," is the most familiar new voice, although the less-celebrated Mark Feldman and Kenny Wheeler are certainly in synch with Abercrombie's methods. Feldman is a violinist and one of the most versatile improvisers on any instrument, and he proves equally persuasive stretching the hazy boundaries of the title track and calling on his years in Nashville on "That's for Sure." A Canadian-born, London-based poet of the trumpet and flugelhorn, Wheeler is at his most eloquent on "Speak Easy." He is another long-standing, always imaginative ECM artist, and his own new CD, A Long Time Ago, spotlights his writing and playing in the unprecedented setting of a flugelhorn/piano/guitar trio surrounded by an eight-piece brass choir. -- C.M.Y.

Bob Blumenthal is a jazz critic for The Boston Globe.

Charles M. Young reviews popular music for Playboy, Musician, and other publications.

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Photo credits -- Barber: Jimmy Katz. Lucky Dube: Shanachie. John Abercrombie: ECM.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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