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Interviews

Patricia Barber: Complete; Not Complacent

By Published: March 1, 2004
The new disc is a collection of songs expressing different feelings in different ways. Like so many of her tunes, it often seems to be poetry put to music. Not your mother's poetry. Funky. Earthy. Quirky. Funny. Cool. It has nods to the likes of Cole Porter, but also Mose Allison.

The lyrics are heady; they take some thought, but it's worth it. Irony, humor and dead-on emotional bullseye are some of the things you'll find in them. The disc also carries some rthymic twists, rhythmic drones, and the trumpet of Dave Douglas splashing colors in various spots to augment the proceedings.

Like "Eat Your Words," a seduction piece, she says, envisioned as a student's perhaps somewhat taboo feelings for a teacher.

philosophy engenders a rational man
Descartes would be the first to agree
syllogistically speaking if 'A' is you
and 'B' is me
logical progression will lead to 'C'


Barber was always into music. Her father, Floyd "Shim" Barber, was a Chicago saxophonist who played with the likes of Glenn Miller. So her interest in music was early, and not influenced by the music most common on the radio or on turntables during her youth. She loved Judy Garland.

"The Beatles? I didn't like them. I definitely didn't like the Rolling Stones. I didn't really get any of that stuff. So the music of my time, I didn't really get. I was listening to what I guess you call the classic American songsters. Frank Sinatra. I wasn't really into the really hip people, like Sarah Vaughan, until high school. And Miles Davis." Her influences eventually included Sheila Jordan, Shirley Horn, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea and well as Miles and Joni Mitchell.

In high school "I was one of those band kids. I was always in all the festivals. I really loved music. Played every instrument. I didn't start singing until the high school music, tryouts for the musical. I tried out and I got the part. Then I really didn't sing again until I got to college. There was a note on the board for a girl singer in a pop band. And I needed the job, so I applied. And I got the job. Then I had to figure out how to sing. Because I was a musician, I kind of knew how to sing already. It was relatively easy, actually."

"I was a classical piano major at the University of Iowa. And a psychology major. The psychology major was to give me an out," she said slyly. In the event music didn't work out, "I could go to law school or medical school or something. My father was a jazz musician, but nobody wanted me to do that, because he died an alcoholic. So I was trying to do something in music — but safer. In the end I decided that the jazz musicians were just having more fun than the classical musicians, so I called my mother and said I was going to go into jazz."

She stuck with her decision — "stupidly," she jokes — from her senior year in college. And there were, typically, a lot of lumps to take along the way.

"Tough. Really tough. Chicago was a big city and we have some very sophisticated musicians here and I wasn't really ready for the big time at all," she says. "The singer got a lot of the work, then the pianist had a lot of catching up to do."

The gigs took her "all over Rush Street, the typical Chicago places; all mob joints. We just had a fabulous time. Those are really some of my best memories," she says. "All of the musicians helped me. Sometimes I would need a certain lesson from a certain pianist and I would call and have a lesson or two, or they'd help me on a gig; tell me what to study, what to listen to. Tell me what I was bad at."

Chicago's Green Mill also became a place that helped solidify her reputation, as it has for artists like Kurt Elling.

"I play there when I call them now, when I want a gig; I want to rehearse the band, or I put in some new material. I don't play there on a weekly basis because, frankly, I got too busy. I was on the road, and doing that gig after I got home was really tough," she says, adding, "The Green Mill is a fabulous place to play. It's a fabulous club. All the national acts are starting to get wind of it and go through there now."

So it's good being Patricia Barber. She likes where she's been and likes where she's headed. So does Blue Note, which will be handling her next project.

"Trying to figure out what my next project will be is a fun, period, because you kind of read a lot and think a lot and listen to a lot of music. So that's where I'm at right now." More original works are in the offing. "I definitely would like to continue that. It's a long thing. It takes me a long time to write music. I think I do way too much research," she says with a chuckle.


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