Ms. Barber’s fans seem to admire whatever she does. The Thursday night audience at Portland’s Winningstad Theater indulged the pianist and singer’s every eccentricity. They chuckled as she spent the first two or three minutes of her set adjusting or removing her shoes. She pointed upward with a demand that someone, presumably the sound engineer, “Fix this thing.” Unhappy with something about the beginning of her first piece, she yelled a four-letter oath that materialized twice more in the course of the concert. Several people in the crowd laughed in amusement.
Following extended keyboard noodling, the bassist and drummer came aboard and the piece developed into Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning.” Sipping occasionally from a cup, frequently removing and replacing her glasses, Ms. Barber soloed with sketchy melodies undergirded by rich chords that continued in support of Patrick Mulcahy’s powerful bass solo. Mulcahy was also impressive in variations on Kenny Dorham’s, “Blue Bossa.” Barber decorated the piece with a wordless vocal whose volume became alarming every time she leaned into the microphone.
Guitarist John Kregor joined Mulcahy and drummer John Deitemyer in the rhythm section for “The Storyteller” from the recent Barber album Smash. Kregor’s solos during the evening varied from conventional swing to spacey. On some, he used electronic loop effects. He was never less than interesting. Deitemyer opened “Bashful” with a tightly articulated drum statement that Barber followed with a solo composed of intricate phrases and no apparent continuity in the melodic line. She again loudly uttered the obscenity, fully amplified. The interweaving of guitar and piano was a highlight of the piece. As she did occasionally throughout the concert, Barber added wordless vocal interjections as percussion effects.
Aside from the Monk opener, the sole standard in the set was “I Thought About You,” taken slowly. She sang the seldom-used verse and then the chorus with only Mulcahy’s bass as accompaniment. It was affecting, marred a bit only by Ms. Barber’s alteration of the Johnny Mercer lyric. He wrote,
I peaked through the crack and looked at the track,
The one going back to you and what did I do?
I thought about you.
She sang, “cracks,” “tracks” and “ones.” I quibble, but messing with Johnny Mercer is not allowed.
More than one reviewer has written that Ms. Barber’s lyrics qualify as poetry. You be the judge. Here’s part of her lyric for “Scream,” also from the new CD:
“Scream / when Sunday / finally comes / and God / isn’t there . . . . the soldier / has his gun / and the war / isn’t where / we thought it would be.”
“Scream” had further intriguing guitar by Kregor, with lots of echo. The piece ended with Ms. Barber singing a long, loud note, holding it for more than a minute in a prodigy of breath control.
Following a standing ovation, the band returned for an encore whose title was not announced. It opened with a bass solo, then went into a quirky piano-guitar unison line and a fleet piano solo. Ms. Barber leaped to her feet and reached inside the piano to pull on the strings, creating several explosions of sound. Kregor employed distortion that enhanced the rhythmic qualities of his solo. The sidemen went silent and Ms. Barber closed unaccompanied on piano, with a bluesy passage among the abstractions, and faded to a quiet ending.
She got another standing ovation. Someone in the crowd shouted, “Portland loves you.”
Later at the Winningstad, alto and soprano saxophonist Kenny Garrett launched his quintet into a blitz of energy and volume that rarely subsided in a two-hour concert. With pianist Vernell Brown, bassist Corcoran Holt, drummer McClenty Hunter and the remarkable percussionist Rudy Bird, Garrett segued from one piece to the next without announcing titles. From the opening number, which seemed to have brief intimations of “Flamingo,” the set approached pure rhythm and pure sound. For enjoyment, it may have required that the listener accept it as a mystical or spiritual experience rather than one based in conventional jazz values. Garrett’s adoration of John Coltrane is unquestionable, but he has moved well beyond the Coltrane apprenticeship of his early career into a realm of his own making. Twenty-three years ago, Garrett made an album called African Exchange Student. His attachment to the roots music of Africa has grown ever more powerful.
In several instances, the efforts of the five musicians melded together; they might have been one percussion instrument, so powerful—or overpowering—was the mass of rhythmic sound they produced. At times, surges of rhythm moved the crowd to frenzied cheering. When Garrett and Hunter or Holt faced one another in simultaneous improvisation their duets were passages of relative calm, eyes in the storm of sound.
In the opening sequence Bird (pictured) played conga drums. Later, he moved through his corner of the stage from one percussion instrument to another; wind chimes, tambourine, a variety of hand-held bells, rattles and shakers. Sometimes, he strapped a wireless microphone to his head and continued drumming or playing a shaker as he sang melodies in unison with Garrett’s saxophone. Brown soloed on piano with chords so pungent that they stood out even in the swirl and urgency of percussive sound. After a solo in which Garrett made the horn sound as if it were crying, Holt applied his bow to the bass and the two faced off in a mournful duet. Then Garrett went to the edge of the stage, seemed for the first time to notice the audience and appeared to be speaking into a stand mike. His lips were moving, but no words could be heard. That bit of stagecraft may have had a point known only to Garrett.
The final piece, or the final segment of the one piece, was comparatively slow, even elegiac. Again Bird sang or hummed in unison with Garrett’s saxophone. Using gliding slurs, Garrett briefly evoked the lyricism of Johnny Hodges. It was an unexpected turn in a concert otherwise mainly devoted to intensity.