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Patricia Barber: Pop Art

Patricia Barber
Patricia Barber

Showbiz mythology maintains that for every performer who earns fortune and fame there are 100,000 others who instead end up, as Burt Bacharach and Hal David once so eloquently put it, parking cars and pumping gas. Add “jazz” in front of the word “performer” and you can multiply such risky odds at least tenfold. So, when a jazz artist who has beaten the odds, and has done so without once compromising her lofty artistic standards, credits her success to having been “lucky enough to have been given such a blanket snub by the mainstream jazz community,” it’s tempting to suspect insincerity or false modesty or clever posturing.

But singer-pianist Patricia Barber, a plain-speaking Chicagoan if ever there was one, means precisely what she says. Despite nine albums that have gained her significant recognition, critical praise and better-than-average financial rewards across at least three continents, she considers herself an outsider, destined to remain disenfranchised, disconnected and, if need be, misunderstood.

Not that she would have it any other way, convinced that swimming against the current is the only route to integrity.

Asked if she still believes, as she once opined, that “being cutting edge and having platinum sales are mutually exclusive,” she responds with a firm “Yep,” emphasizing that “you have to be out front a little bit; you have to be a little ahead of your time.”

Barber’s latest project is an album that by the sheer weight of its intellectual propensity is guaranteed to keep her away from the superhighway of platinum-edged popularity and firmly planted on the road less traveled. It will not land her on Entertainment Tonight or see her splashed across magazine covers-though it might at last provide the Grammy nomination that has forever eluded her.

Fueled by a Guggenheim fellowship granted three years ago, the disc’s marvelous complexity is masked by the simple title Mythologies. Its 11 tracks are based on characters from Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, offering a modern reinterpretation of each.

An appropriate initiative it seems, since Barber has long cast herself as the Sisyphus of jazz-continuously engaged in a self-propelled, uphill battle that pits artistic quality against commercial greed, tart and tang against vanilla palpability and keenly independent thought against the dumbed-down sameness of contemporary pop’s messages.

For the uninitiated and the as-yet enthralled (including one prominent critic who dismissed Barber as the “ice queen from hell”), here’s the backstory:

Barber was raised on music, but not jazz. Her late father, Floyd (his name lives on in her music company’s moniker), was a saxophonist whose many credits included a stint with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Though a child of the ’60s, Barber eschewed the Beatles, Beach Boys and Rolling Stones in favor of Judy Garland, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra. By high school, her self-shaped syllabus also embraced Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Horn, Keith Jarrett, Shirley Jordan and, like anyone else of her generation with a modicum of musical taste, Joni Mitchell.

But jazz, a career choice she considered “a stupid thing for a smart woman to do,” wasn’t in her personal forecast. Instead, she headed for the University of Iowa to major in both classical piano and psychology-the latter degree added, she admits, “to cover my ass, so I could go back to graduate school for anything.”

So, what turned the jazz corner?

“I was walking through the music building,” she recalls, “and the classical and jazz musicians were playing. The jazz musicians seemed to be bleeding out of their practice rooms, while the classical musicians were very much inside their space. They had dour faces, while the jazz musicians were laughing and joking and having a great time. Right then and there, I decided I was going to cast my luck with them.”

Returning to Chicago, Barber found it tough to gain acceptance into the city’s sophisticated jazz community, and remembers those days as “very, very hard. I was constantly looking for a way out. I tried a couple of things and was fired. I explored different areas of music, like the studio scene, but that didn’t work out because it’s very clique-ish. Teaching I can do. I’m a good teacher. But that doesn’t float my boat, and would always be a second choice. I tried getting into film and TV writing, but that didn’t work out either. Every time I tried to bail [from jazz] it didn’t work out for me, so I had no choice.”

But Barber’s luck changed when the Sardine Bar offered her an oasis to hone her craft. “Those were some charmed years,” Barber acknowledges. “I was really lucky that that worked out. They insisted on having me perform standards, so I couldn’t do my own music, but in fact learned how to write music from learning that repertoire so well.”

After the Sardine Bar’s sad demise and an extended period of professional soul-searching, Barber got a call from Dave Jemillo, owner of the Green Mill, Chicago’s finest and most respected jazz room, inviting her to become a regular. “Dave called me at home while I was taking, like, a year off. He said, ‘Come out on Sunday nights,’ and I was like, ‘Er, I don’t know if I really want to do that because I’ve been thinking about not doing this at all.’ He said, ‘Well, just come in and see what happens, just for a couple of hours a week.’

“The first time we went in, there was a grand total of two drunks at the bar,” Barber says. “I went over to Dave and said, ‘You know, I’m not feeling very good about music and this lifestyle. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I step up on that stage. I could end up leaving. I could end up screaming.’ Dave gave me the ultimate permission to get up there and give it a try. And the rest is history. The place became mobbed on Sunday nights. We were extended to Monday nights, and then it was mobbed both nights.”

With the swelling of Barber’s regional reputation came the demand for more albums. An extremely short-lived relationship with a major label, one that left her with a bitter taste for what Joni Mitchell mockingly dubbed “the star-making machinery,” prompted her to take matters into her own hands. Despite aggressive courting from other majors, Barber signed with local Premonition Records and insisted on complete creative control of her output. Her only concession: a distribution deal with Blue Note that would guarantee national and international exposure, an arrangement that lasted up until the 2004 live gem A Fortnight in France, when Barber decided to move fully to Blue Note.

Though from all outward appearances, Blue Note seems to be squarely in Barber’s corner and fully committed to her particular creative bent-it’s hard to imagine another major label that would so strongly support as obviously noncommercial a venture as Mythologies-she still remains wary. “I wish it were like when I first got to Chicago,” she suggests. “I would go to the Jazz Record Mart and have to order Betty Carter records because she carried them around in the trunk of her car. The same thing with Shirley Horn. There were so many different channels. There weren’t just three or four record companies; there were many, many smaller labels that were somehow able to survive. The profit margins in music are still as small as they were back then, so you have to do it as a labor of love. It can never be about money. But there was some sort of switch in the ’80s when I guess they decided it could be about money, and they’ve never switched back. Still, with the Internet, I’m hoping there will again be more channels for independent artists.”

As for the relationship with Blue Note, she concedes that it’s “so far so good. But the system continues to change to a more corporate, bottom-line mentality, so I’ll have to see what happens as we move on.”

For the insatiably curious Barber, the creative arc shows no signs of flattening. Beginning with 1989’s self-produced Split and progressing at a consistently steep creative angle through Mythologies, she has produced a body of recorded work that places her in a stratum reserved for such beyond-category geniuses as Mitchell and Elvis Costello. Her compositions, akin to Mitchell and Costello’s, are like onions, continuously revealing fresh layers that are variously (and oftentimes simultaneously) witty, provocative and profound.

Though an ever-increasing amount of original material has been added to her songbook, Barber remains an ardent fan of the Great American Songbook-hence the unexpected but welcome release of the all-standards Nightclub in 2000, which she half-jokingly describes as the album her mother “patiently waited for.” She would like to someday record an entire disc of Cole Porter material and considers Rodgers and Hart’s “Spring Is Here” the “epitome” of songwriting skill.

“It is,” she enthuses, “like Mozart’s ‘Requiem.’ After ‘Spring Is Here,’ I feel like Rodgers and Hart didn’t have to do another thing. They could come into the lunchroom and snub everybody else simply because they’d written [that one, perfect song]. They wrote so many, many beautiful songs that are very special to me. Johnny Mandel and Henry Mancini are also guys I love. I always wanted to be Henry Mancini because everything he touched sounded like him and he had the opportunity to get into a lot of different media. He would write for big band, then for film and TV, and all of it sounded like Henry Mancini. He is a big idol of mine.”

Barber’s passion for great songs expands beyond Tin Pan Alley into the music of her formative years. Though she is far from the only jazz singer who has embraced rock and pop hits of the ’60s and ’70s, she is arguably the best at reshaping such tunes. For proof, listen to what she does to “Light My Fire” on 1998’s Modern Cool, or “Black Magic Woman” on the following year’s Companion, or, also from Modern Cool, the tongue-in-cheek brilliance of her stone-faced reading of Paul Anka’s monstrously sexist “She’s a Lady.”

“Ever since 1992, when I put ‘My Girl’ on A Distortion of Love, I’ve considered it all open repertoire,” Barber says. It’s simply a matter of how you treat it. Great pop songs can also be great jazz standards. The exception is country music. With two chords, it’s hard to make that sound better, though her whip-smart reading of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” on 1994’s Café Blue seems to belie that.

So, if Patricia Barber is a superb songwriter, an inimitable reinterpreter of everything from ancient poetry to corny pop hits and a brave, bold performer who’s eager to work without a net, a question still nags: Why does a woman who ranks among the most respected, most innovative jazz artists of our time remain so hidden in the shadows?

Perhaps it’s because she’s too brainy, too obtuse, too challenging. But I’d argue it is a self-manufactured purgatory. Barber likes the shadows. In live performances, she and her sterling quartet mates-guitarist Neal Alger, drummer Eric Montzka and bassist Michael Arnopol (whose role as Barber’s first lieutenant dates back more than a decade)-dress entirely in black “so that when we are on the concert stage you can only see our hands, our instruments and our faces,” she says. Barber’s countenance is frequently hidden by her dangling hair, drawn around her like a blackout curtain as she leans over the keyboard. She’s often branded as aloof and distant, a perception she believes has to do with “the timbre of my voice, and the way that I stick fairly closely to the written line. I don’t chat much onstage, and I don’t talk to people afterward. So, I think that’s all part of it. I’m pretty private.”

As clearly evidenced throughout Mythologies, with its complex blurring of classical and modern allusions linked to timeless human themes of internal and external conflict and desire, her goal is to engage and occasionally enrage audiences with a rich cacophony of ideas and possibilities, an endless spectrum of shifting grays. The ultimate lesson to be learned is that Barber’s music isn’t about Barber. Her songs are eternal flames designed to ignite each listener’s imagination.

In an explanation of Mythologies’ 11 tracks that applies equally to her entire repertoire, Barber says that her initial goal was “to make these songs work the first time down. If it doesn’t work that first time, then it doesn’t work in music. After that, if you want to go back and listen again and compare them to the original stories or make different kinds of comparisons or figure out every double or triple entendre, it should also wear well that way. Though, for the most part, I’m very careful to stick to universal themes, everything has multiple associations.”

Ostensibly, then, the professional road Barber has chosen is long, a little lonely and filled with many a winding turn. But, insists Barber, it’s foolish to consider it a pioneering voyage. She is simply “doing what artists have been doing for centuries. What I’ve done is simply absorbed the art form I love and made it my own. You’re supposed to re-create the art from the inside out, which means you really need to know it and love it. It shouldn’t be such a mystery because it is what all artists are supposed to do.” Originally Published