Is it still art when you can fingerpop to it? Finally, it's arrived. In 2003 jazz songwriter, pianist, and bandleader Patricia Barber received a Guggenheim fellowship to create a song cycle based on Ovid's Metamorphoses. Barber is that rare kind of jazz artist -- she appeals to non-jazz fans. She's as ambitious as they get and her poetic, sometimes brainy compositions sit well with sophisticated pop audiences everywhere. On Mythologies, Barber has taken the heart of Ovid's text (he was a Roman poet doing his own intertextual take on Greek mythology) and created 11 pieces, each based on one character in his cycle. She's in turn written a different piece -- in style, linguistic content, and feel -- for each character she was drawn to. Much like the poet, philosopher, and playwright Anne Carson, Barber uses the present vernacular to recontextualize these seemingly eternal characters in the bedrock of jazz and her own brand of sophisticated and literary pop; she places Ovid's poems where they belong -- in song. Barber is accompanied by her crack band -- guitarist Neal Alger, bassist Michael Arnopol, and drummer Eric Montzka -- and employs as many guests as it takes to get her songs across. This isn't the gutting of ancient high culture; it's the presentation of it as something instructive, personal, and revelatory in the inner life of the songwriter. Musically, beginning with the spacious yet knotty piano notes that usher in "The Moon," Barber takes Ovid's characters, sets their context in the present vernacular (mostly), and allows them to manifest the faces of those we know, have known, or have been: "With whitecake/On my face/The actress backstage/Contemplates/Laying a universal egg/Still a broken heart/Is a broken heart...." The stillness of the moon witnesses all, and we enact our life scenarios under it, whether true or false. Alger underscores the vocal lines with small single-line runs and effects, as does the near constant bass of Arnopol. When the skittering hip-hop drums kick in after the verse ends, the band takes off, cracks the groove open (Barber's lower-register notes usher in the blues and then arpeggiates out of them), and works it.
The elegant sensuality of "Morpheus" is a dreamy tune for the king of dreams, who suffers from and witnesses ever-unrequited love -- because everyone has. The single-note bass pulse of Arnopol is hypnotic as it underscores Jim Gailloreto's soloing. The melody is dressed for the evening by Barber's gorgeous chord voicings. But it is in "Pygmalion" and "Hunger" that Ovid's truth becomes plain. Mythologies is about want and its many, many faces, about passage and arrival and return. Alger's guitar is beautifully twinned with Barber's voice as she sings "....Wildly attractive and seductive as sin/The closer you come.../The more you want to be free.../When the gods get even/They think of me/While you're fast asleep in your bed as I flee/As...I give you a kiss/As I take my leave/I leave you with this.../That there's never enough to eat...." Alger's guitar kicks it up a notch and is propelled by cowbells, rim shots, and cymbals, countered by the bass which creates the swirl of dream and desire out of silence and harmony. In fact, both "Pygmalion" and "Hunger" are sick with desire; they reflect our own sickness with it. It's all craving: "Like Narcissus and his lover/You can never have the other/You can never lick the plate/Clean...." "Icarus," written for Nina Simone, is ushered by strummed, rubbery, yes, perhaps even melting guitar chords and a slippery, fluid bassline as Simone's tale -- as interpreted through Ovid's Icarus via Barber -- is revealed in the subjective moment. It's nocturnal, dreamy, picaresque, and full of swirl and swoop, with a memorable melody. The dark, minor-chord voicings that usher in "Orpheus" offer the blues as isolation, as the interlocutor of emptiness. The sensuality is in the void, but it remains smoldering with want in the flesh and with hope in the heart. The tender "Persephone," with its lushness and the languid ease of its night lounge wishes, gives voice to the following "Narcissus," together these are among the most beautiful songs Barber has ever written. She finds the Roman, the Greek, and the Anglo tenets, the secret faces of her characters, and sets them in the looking glass viewing themselves and/as one another. Yet all of them in song are communicated from an airy shelter of reverie. Jazz falls down around each one, with a pop caress. They are not statues, but instead have the ever-thinning appearance of the lost, the forgotten, the wished for, the never possessed.
The hard truth of all -- as Ovid saw in his own looking glass -- lies in Barber's lines: "Brazenly object/Willingly subject...." "Whiteworld/Oedipus" funks, rocks, swerves, and spills over the lip of the cup to reveal thievery and non-subjective will as their own gift and reward: "I have institutions in the West/To make institutions in the East/I historically revise/With deconstructionist ease...I'm a gangster in a Hummer/And this culture will yield to me/Whiteworld...." "Phaeton," fleshed out by a hip-hop choir, displays the cycle in its most questioning face. Barber's band plays emotively and lushly before the rapping voices fall down like a sequence of apocalyptic environmental prophecies that are coming true in the present. They reveal the coming darkness in the spatial moment when the bill comes due, as the band attempts to comfort these prophets in their anguish. The set ends with "The Hours," where loss, regret, passage, and transformation -- indeed metamorphosis -- all come out of the closet, rolling down with desperate bargains and false hopes in their open hands. Barber nearly whispers her character's preparation in balladry so impure and unsentimental that its sensuality is raw but iconoclastically beautiful. The band enters seamlessly, and fills out the passage of night as the sun asserts its rise to a rock & roll backbeat. The group rises, too; the tempo becomes more pronounced and the choir is heard once more, nearly gospel-like -- except for the syncopation in its utterances -- as it follows Barber toward the emptying out of this ragged but sultry vessel.
Here is where those left off and left over beg for Heaven to wait one more day before it claims them, even as it arrives with its wry smile and bared teeth. The simple melodic structure belies the sheer want and need of the hopeless request. When the refrain "Who'll save us now?" comes reverberating back from the choir with a vengeance, one realizes that there really is no vengeance, only recurrence as the dream begins anew. Mythologies is a single moment in jazz when the entire music moves forward because it engages the culture as it is. Blues and swing are embedded in these complex, ever-shifting harmonics and melodic songs; they shape-shift through pop, balladry, rock, post-bop, and even hip-hop. They stand on their own in the full poetic view of the written and sung word. Indeed, as a whole they become something wonderfully new, generated from the meat, bone, and sinew of the past as it enters the here and now. Mythologies is Barber's masterpiece -- thus far.