I’ll admit, I was late to get hip to Patricia Barber. Sure, I was aware of her, as her 2021 album Clique! has become a deserved audiophile favorite for its remarkably lifelike sound and intimate music. I’d heard “This Town” and her stunning version of Stevie Wonder’s “All In Love Is Fair” at audio shows, and done some listening to her here and there on Qobuz, but wasn’t as familiar with singer/pianist/songwriter Barber as I now know I should have been.
This sentiment was ignited by the arrival in my mailbox of the Impex Records 1Step 2-LP, 45 RPM re-release of her 2000 album Nightclub. Well, relatively new – because of various distractions like cataract surgery, a medical false alarm and other trivialities, it took me a while to get around to listening to it. (And is it just me, or has everyone’s sense of time gone out of whack since the pandemic?)
More fool me. This LP release is absolutely marvelous.
Nightclub is an album of well-known and loved songs (I hesitate to use the word “standards,” as that all-too-often means an album by an artist who is trying to inject some life into a flagging career), and you really can’t go wrong with songs like these: “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Alfie,” “Summer Samba, “Autumn Leaves” and eight others. “Wild is the Wind” is a bonus track left off the original release (yes, the same song David Bowie covered on Station to Station).
Barber sings with an alluring, inviting voice, and her talents as a vocalist are at least equaled by her eloquent piano playing, which mixes intriguing chordal harmonic textures with solo lines that balance musical space with melodic surprises. She is accompanied by bassist Michael Arnopol and drummer Adam Cruz, with guest appearances from guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter (who turns in absolutely stellar performances on “Alfie” and “Just For A Thrill,”) Marc Johnson (bass), and Adam Nussbaum (drums).
Patricia Barber. Courtesy of Jimmy and Dena Katz.
The tech stuff: Nightclub was originally recorded on a Sony 3348 machine and mixed to 24-bit/44.1 kHz, and an analog mixdown master was recorded as well. Mastering engineer Bernie Grundman used the analog tapes to create the 1Step vinyl. As the name implies, the vinyl manufacturing eliminates the usual three-step father/mother/stamper process in favor of a one-step process, where the lacquer disc off the cutting lathe is plated and the plating is used as the stamper. I didn’t know that engineer extraordinaire Jim Anderson had recorded Nightclub until after I sat down to write this. (Jeez, what kind of reviewer am I?)
The sound is superb; rich, and deep, with fantastic clarity and presence. Saying that it sounds like you’re in the room with the performers has become the most tiresome of audiophile cliches, and the percentage of recordings for which this is actually true isn’t all that high, but this is one of them. Patricia Barber’s vocals have a warmth and immediacy, and the piano has a physical palpability. The nuances of Barber’s touch are, pun intended, striking – you can clearly hear her dynamic shadings in her solo in “Summer Samba.” Not to mention the fact that I’ve heard countless versions of this song, and, sitting in front of my two speakers, this is the first time I could hear the lyrics where I really got them. “You Don’t Know Me” is almost literally breathtaking in its emotional impact. When you have moments like these, all the audiophile descriptors don’t really matter.
The quality of the 180-gram vinyl is exceptional, with quiet, and I mean quiet, surfaces. Of course, the audio quality would be nothing if the music was insubstantial. No need to worry. Barber inhabits the songs with grace and depth, and the musicianship is at the highest level. It’s accomplished enough where you almost forget about the details, if you know what I mean – it’s simply there, flowing with an unforced ease. The bass and drums are in the background, where they should be, not shouting, “listen to me!” as is the case with too many “audiophile” recordings. The overall sound is up close and personal, with a hint of reverb, a little more so on Charlie Hunter’s electric guitar, a deliberate and beautiful effect.
For fun, I compared the LP with the 16/44 Qobuz stream, an entirely unfair comparison, as my digital setup is nowhere near the caliber of my vinyl rig. The stream was surprisingly good, a testament to the quality of the recording, but could not compete with the 1Step.
The packaging of this set is luxurious. The album comes in a heavy slipcase and the LP, album, accompanying booklet, and slipcase weigh in at 2 pounds, 14 ounces (well of course I had to check!) The set isn’t inexpensive, but if you’re a fan of Patricia Barber and into vinyl, or just want to bask in the sumptuousness of the sound and the allure of the music, I don’t think you’ll be thinking about any of that once the needle drops.
The Nightclub 1Step 2-LP set is available from Elusive Disc, Acoustic Sounds, Music Direct, and others.
Postscript: I did not read Tom Gibbs’s review of this album in Positive Feedback until I wrote mine. Our thoughts are not contradictory.