One gets the impression that Chicago vocalist/piano player/poet Patricia Barber doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Inscrutable, quixotic, yet as clear-headed as the ’50s-era Beats she resembles, Barber is also demanding of herself, her trio and her audience. On her Concord debut, Barber consistently challenges herself and her listeners. Smash, perhaps to an even greater degree that some of her Premonition or Blue Note recordings, mines the realms of the unexpected, while Barber continues to explore genres beyond jazz. Throughout Smash, electric guitars burr, funk drums swing driving beats, and Barber coos her familiar sharp-edged poetry, but then suddenly goes silent — and seemingly off a cliff — practically at a whim.
Smash traces the moments that accompany a love affair turned sour, but as the title implies, it doesn’t do so quietly — it bucks and brays, asks “why?” From the opening, rolling rhythms of “Code Cool,” Barber’s music is deliberate, transparent, pointed and always close to flashpoint. “I’m like Michelangelo’s David, tested and worn,” she sings. After the calming piano interlude, “Romanesque,” Barber sings, “This is the sound of blood on the road” in the title track, her vocal segueing into a dramatic, sky-strafing Hendrix-worthy solo from guitarist John Kregor. But even as Smash runs the gamut of emotions, Barber retains her trademark vocal cool, letting the music — and a fantastic new band — express her catharsis. Barber sings “Scream when Sunday finally comes” as a kind of hymnal of release in “Scream,” then recalls the motionlessness of Joni Mitchell’s Blue in “The Swim.” Smash closes with the relative tranquility of “Missing,” Barber hoping for a lover to reappear, but ultimately accepting fate in any guise that comes her way.