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Patricia Barber's Companion, Now Available on 45 rpm 1STEP from Impex Records

04-25-2024 | By Tom Gibbs | Issue 132

Impex Records continues to roll out the hits with another superb choice for their next deluxe 1STEP LP treatment, reaching again into the catalog of classic albums from jazz composer, pianist, and vocalist Patricia Barber. For this release, Impex has chosen Barber's fifth album, Companion (1999, Premonition Records), which was recorded live at Chicago's Green Mill jazz club where Patricia Barber and her ensemble were Monday night regulars for years. I'd only barely recovered from the genius of Impex's last foray into 1STEP territory, the legendary Getz/Gilberto, when the email from FedEx announcing Companion's shipping itinerary appeared in my inbox. I had no prior knowledge of its imminent arrival, and while they say no news is good news, well this was definitely news to me—and it was great news, even if totally unexpected! 

The 1STEP process requires a new set of lacquers for every pressing run of 500 LPs; it's this demanding level of perfectionist precision that allows Impex Records to offer the finest available audiophile grade LPs. Limiting the number of pressings per lacquer guarantees each LP set will be a faithful reproduction of the original throughout the pressing runs, which are limited to 5000 numbered copies for this edition. Companion has mostly only been available on compact disc domestically, and didn't see an LP release here until Mobile Fidelity's limited edition, 45 rpm double LP set in 2005. Premonition Records offered the first domestically available catalog release of the LP in 2013; minty pressings can be found on Discogs in the $100-200 range, while mint pressings of the MoFi set start around $250 and go upwards of double that price. That definitely puts things into perspective for anyone concerned with the $130 MSRP of Impex's new 1STEP of Companion. Not only will the 1STEP cost about the same or less than anything else that's currently available, it also comes with the attention to sonic detail and perfectionist packaging that's the hallmark of Impex and 1STEP.

Companion's 1STEP LP release was made possible by the efforts of an audiophile dream team, and this new set doesn't disappoint! Analog mix-down tapes were sourced from from Jim Anderson's original recording, and Companion was mixed and mastered on all analog equipment by Bernie Grundman at Bernie Grundman Mastering in Hollywood. Bernie then cut each set of lacquers required for the very demanding 1STEP process. The LPs were pressed at RTI under the direct supervision of Bryce Wilson and Andy Webb, using Neotech's VR900 Supreme vinyl formulation, which is essential to 1STEP's exceptional clarity and impressive level of quiet during playback. 

Companion's 1STEP packaging was produced by Stoughton Printing in City of Industry, California, and features the heavy gatefold album jacket they refer to as their Ultra-Luxe "Monster Pak." Stoughton's classic tip-on process accurately and faithfully reproduces a near-perfect facsimile of the original outer jacket, which also sports a beautiful high-gloss coating. The gatefold jacket's two album sleeves hold the pair of 180 gram LPs; each LP is inserted into a scratch-free poly inner sleeve to further protect it from dust accumulation and static buildup. Another die-cut pocket is bound into the center of the jacket, and it holds a really beautiful and stylish 16-page booklet that features remembrances from Patricia Barber about the album and the live recordings at Chicago's Green Mill. The die-cut pocket is cleverly designed, and has really cool functionality; the die cut is placed such that you see interesting images through the cut when the booklet is inserted, but you also see visually striking images on both sides of the inner sleeve when the booklet is removed. The inner jacket panels and booklet are heavily-varnished with a really cool strike-through effect that goes from high gloss to satin varnish, and features a wealth of Valerie Booth's photos from the live performances, along with all the pertinent technical specs for the reissue. Stoughton's LP jacket is then inserted into a stylized, color-matched outer slipcase, which adds an additional measure of protection for the LPs and completes the 1STEP package.   

Impex's Robert Sliger has again outdone himself, providing another model of form and function for this 1STEP reissue of Companion; I'm having a difficult time finding appropriate superlatives in the thesaurus for his continually excellent work! Impex's Abey Fonn was the producer of this reissue, Robert Bantz served as the executive producer, and Bob Donnelly oversaw quality control throughout the process. Impex Records continues to astonish me with each successive 1STEP release, which are beyond any doubt the industry standard for classic reissues not only in terms of their tremendous sonics, but their impressive packaging as well; you can preorder a copy of Companion from their partner Elusive Disc HERE.

My Personal Take on Companion

I've mentioned this before, but I came rather late to Patricia Barber's party, and mainly after my daughter's seemingly crazy idea to relocate to Chicago. Which proved to be fortuitous, and definitely put me in much better—and more regular—proximity to experience the local love that Barber was getting in the Windy City. Despite my attempts to immerse myself in all things Patricia Barber, hearing Companion somehow managed to elude me for years! I actually heard my first track from the album when I was covering the 2023 Florida International Audio Expo (FLAX), where Jim Anderson and Kristina Ulrike Schwarz were hosting a series of talks about their involvement with Patricia Barber's catalog of albums. The moment Jim cued Companion's cover of Bill Withers' classic "Use Me," my initial response was absolute astonishment at the marvelous performance, then total confusion regarding how I could possibly have missed this record for so very long!

Jim Anderson and Kristina Schwarz playing Patricia Barber's music at FLAX 2023.

That situation got rectified immediately on my return from FLAX, when I placed an order for several Impex 24K Gold CDs from Elusive Disc including Companion, since an LP wasn't available at the time. Hey, that gave me files for my digital music server, and any Impex CD is typically miles beyond any other digital version that exists, so no worries in terms of sound quality, which is guaranteed to be stellar (It was!). Now that the 1STEP has arrived, it's totally copacetic, and to my great surprise, the set also came with a couple of bonus tracks! 

Patricia Barber, Companion. Impex Records (two) 1STEP 45 rpm LPs, $129.99 MSRP

Companion's name is derived from the album's very close proximity to the release Patricia Barber's Grammy-winning¹ Modern Cool, for which it's a de facto live "companion," and is emblematic of Barber and her band's performance style at the time. The album was recorded over a period of three nights in July 1999 at Chicago's famous Green Mill jazz club, which had been the scene of Patricia Barber's longtime Monday night residency. Engineer extraordinaire Jim Anderson, despite the obvious presence of a live audience at the Green Mill, went with more of  a "live in the studio" kind of approach, encouraging the crowd to remain relatively restrained and not talk during the recordings. That approach helps to imbue all the recordings here with a very spontaneous, you-are-there vibe, and Companion makes for a very exciting listening experience, even though the crowd roars their approval for much of the duration!

For Companion, Patricia Barber not only offers her usual piano and vocals, but she also played the Green Mill's house Hammond B3 organ on several tunes as well. In a quote from her remembrances of the event in the 1STEP's excellent booklet, she announced to the band that she decided to play the B3 on several songs (she had no prior experience with Hammond organs). One of the band members remarked to her "Patricia, you can't just decide you want to play the organ and then play it," but when you're Patricia Barber, there are obviously no limits! The core band for the three nights of recordings also featured her longtime associates, guitarist John McLean and bassist Michael Arnapol, and new and soon to be longtime drummer Eric Montzka, who makes his first recorded appearance with Barber on Companion. Featured on many of the album's tracks were Rubên Alvarez on percussion, and vocalist Jason Narducy joined Patricia Barber on "Touch of Trash."

Because of the limited floor space at the Green Mill, Jim Anderson set up his recording equipment in the space underneath the club's floor, which was part of a secret network of underground passages once used to transport liquor during prohibition. Despite the less than ideal conditions, the proof of the recording team's efforts is in the final tapes, which is a remarkable document of Patricia Barber and her group live and at the peak of her Modern Cool phase. Of the album's nine tracks, four are Barber originals, with only "Let It Rain" and "Touch of Trash" having made an appearance on Modern Cool; "Like JT (Inspired by Jacky Terrasson" and "If This Isn't Jazz" make their recorded debut here. The remaining five tracks are brilliant covers, including Sonny Bono's "The Beat Goes On," the previously mentioned Bill Withers' "Use Me," a totally unexpected rendition of Jimmie Davis' classic "You Are My Sunshine," an ultra cool take on Miles' "So What," and the album closes with a rollicking rendition of Peter Green's "Black Magic Woman."

Listening Results

You can see the components in my dual audio systems by clicking my name in the header. I used the all-analog system for my evaluation of Companion; it's been revamped with a new pair of standmount compact monitor loudspeakers, the Vanguard Scouts, which are in the same vein as classic British designs like the LS3/5A's. The Scouts are running in tandem with a Vanguard Caldera 10 subwoofer; this combination has taken my enjoyment of analog playback to another level of goodness. That setup also incorporates the excellent PS Audio Stellar phono preamp, and everything is powered by my PrimaLuna EVO 300 tube integrated amplifier. Which was recently upgraded with a matched quad of premium Gold Lion KT77 power tubes and a matched pair of vintage NOS Brimar 12AU7 input tubes. As usual, playback of the LPs was handled by my ProJect Classic EVO turntable that's mounted with an Ortofon Quintet Bronze MC cartridge. The new tubes have imbued my analog playback with the kind of lush sound I'd always hoped for, and have reinvigorated my appreciation of what a really good analog source—like this Impex 1STEP set—is capable of. And they're a perfect match for the new complement of Vanguard loudspeakers.

RTI's 180 gram LPs were perfection incarnate; they were razor-flat and perfectly centered, and had beautifully glossy surfaces. As typical of Neotech's VR900 Supreme vinyl formulation, the pressings were dead silent, and no noise of any type was evident during playback. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Companion may be the best-sounding 1STEP release from Impex yet. 

Side one opens with a trio of covers, beginning with "The Beat Goes On," which lazes along to a vamp that combines Michael Arnapol's bass along with percussion and drums. Midway through, Patricia Barber's first foray into Hammond B3 organ chimes in; it's shockingly effective in giving this tune a jazzily hip vibe, and PB's vocal is perfectly soulful. Next up is another cover, the tune I actually bought the CD for: Bill Withers' chestnut "Use Me." Which is given an amazingly nimble intro on bass from Arnapol, who plumbs the depths of his instrument before finally arriving at the song's instantly recognizable theme. Where drums, percussion, and John McLean's otherworldly guitar effects are joined by another skillfully soulful Patricia Barber vocal, who then proceeds to wail on the B3 throughout the song's center. Here's where things moved into unexplored territory for me, where Patricia Barber on piano sings a plaintive version of "You Are My Sunshine," which—wait, this isn't on the CD! Only at that point did I realize there were extra tracks on the 1STEP! All the remaining players join in, but the song retains the same delicacy throughout that Barber initiated from the beginning. As the song continues, Patricia Barber's piano turn is a thing of incredible beauty—the addition of this tune to the proceedings was such a pleasant surprise!

Comprised entirely of Barber originals, side two opens with the tribute tune "Like JT," a thrilling, nearly eight minute roller-coaster of an instrumental where Barber's piano and the supporting players solo liberally against each other to thrilling effect, as the crowd roars its approval. Next up are the two tunes from Modern Cool, "Let It Rain," and "Touch of Trash," which are both given readings that are much in the same vein as the only recently released studio album. John McLean's guitar work employs some astonishingly good fingerpicking here on the slightly more restrained live version of "Let It Rain," while "Touch of Trash" is absent the studio version's trumpet accompaniment, but PB makes up for it with a fairly whacked-out Hammond B3 turn. 

Side three opens with the final Barber original, a sultry rendering of "If This Isn't Jazz," which makes its recorded debut on Companion. John McLean again lays down some impressively superb guitar with nifty sustain and whammy bar effects, while Patricia Barber offers another sultrily soulful vocal, where she proclaims "If this isn't jazz, it'll have to do, until the real thing comes along!" Barber scats through the trumpet parts in a surprisingly effective cover of Miles Davis' "So What," which also didn't appear on the original CD release. Barber's voice often soars, as she and the band decided to eschew a typical straight reading of the classic tune. Side four brings Companion to its close, where PB and company bring the house down with a raucous, electrifying cover of "Black Magic Woman," where the crowd goes berserk at the ending! And as PB so eloquently reminded us, "If this isn't jazz, it'll have to do!"

Impex Records' Companion 1STEP Captures Patricia Barber Live and at Her Best

I was clicking through my usual morning tour of Facebook a day or so ago, and came across a post from Patricia Barber², where she waxed poetically about her time in the 1980s playing five nights a week at another longtime Chicago mainstay, the Gold Star Sardine Bar. Where she basked in her role of simply playing the piano and developing her improvisational skills, without feeling compelled to bare her heart and soul through vocal performances of her often very personal compositions. But her love of music and composing allowed her to break through any self-imposed barriers to bring her music to a wider audience, both through her recordings and the eventual gig as regulars at the Green Mill. Thank God for that—I can't imagine a world deprived of her wonderful work at the piano entwined with her smoky-sweet and often sultry alto vocal stylings. 

Companion captures Patricia Barber at her most eclectic, with a band that remained relatively static during the period from Café Blue through Modern Cool, and who'd developed a very tight musical rapport. On Companion they perform a scintillating mix of often quirky originals and offbeat, unexpected covers recast by readings Barber has firmly placed her own stamp upon. While the musicians here knew each other's styles intimately, the live performances freed them of the strictures of the studio, allowing for a higher level of improvisation and spontaneity. I'd been developing a deep appreciation for Companion, but prior to hearing the almost ghostly quiet, impressive clarity, and richly detailed sound of the Neotech VR900 Supreme vinyl pressings in Impex's 1STEP, I didn't fully realize what a superb album it actually is! And Robert Sliger's 1STEP packaging is truly exceptional! Thanks to everyone at Impex Records, and especially Abey Fonn for making this possible. Very highly recommended!

Impex Records


Elusive Disc


All photos courtesy of Impex Records, Elusive Disc, and the author.

¹ Modern Cool was awarded a Grammy in 2013 for Best Surround Sound Album for its BluRay Audio reissue.

² Fanboy moment: I'm actually Facebook friends with Patrica Barber! She's not only talented and brilliant, but also such a very nice person!