CLASSICAL & JAZZ PATRICIA BARBERBack in college, I was Roland Barthes on speed. Steeped in semiotics (just wittily apply any flavor of literary criticism to everyday actions and objects and presto, you're a semiotician) and revved up on generic fruit pies, I discovered that every lyric was a fortress guarding an immutable secret. With the right allegorical key, Truth would be known, Lester Bangs would be right, and opaque lyrics like "Telegram force/and ready/I knew this was a big mistake" would unfurl their wisdom. After a semester of failing to exhume the arcane phenomenology of James Brown's "There It Is, Pt. 1," I realized every lyric might not have a secret.

It is a tradition in music journalism to quote lyrics, but like those early-'70s high-school English textbooks that schlepped the words of Dylan, Lennon, and Paul Simon into a let's-hook-the-kids chapter usually titled "The Poetry of Rock," what good is it? Fragrant with secrets, Patricia Barber's lyrics are more poetic than most--"If I were blue/like David Hockney's pool/dive into me and glide"--yet without hearing the melody and her wan, wistful voice, it's like listening to someone describe last night's sunset. With her trio, Barber draws on classical, jazz, and the avant, but if there is an allegorical key to the Chicago-based jazz singer's music, it's her voice. Like another master of modern sprechstimme, David Sylvian, Barber sings, speaks, intones, whispers, and purrs, invoking ordinary words to echo those lonely moments we have all felt to be uniquely ours. CHRISTOPHER DeLAURENTI

Patricia Barber performs Fri-Sun Nov 8-10. Sets start at 8 and 10 pm, except for Sun when the sets start at 6:30 pm and 8:30 pm (Jazz Alley, 2033 Sixth Ave, 441-9729) $18.50/$20.50.