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Patricia Barber: Complete; Not Complacent

R.J. DeLuke By

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I probably would sell more records if I did things a different way, but then I wouldn't be happy.
It's good to be Patricia Barber these days. The singer/pianist with the deep, winsome voice admittedly in a good place, getting gigs, getting recognition, amassing a following that, while not Diana Krall-ish in number, is strong and growing. And she's about to release a new CD on Blue Note, comprised of virtually all original music (one song is Verlaine prose adapted to her music).

Verse , coming out this month, is also produced by Barber, and while the process of having to wear many hats — singer, pianist, arranger, bandleader — and straining with the reins of production can run her ragged at times, she's proud of the disc, and happy to trade off the exhaustive work in exchange for having full control of the final product. That integrity — that strength of artistic vision and desire to see it through — is important to her.

Bravo.

What she's produced, Barber says, is a piece of work that expresses her art and that is consistent with her artistic journey and her principles. Consistency is what she is seeking throughout, even as she eyes, off in the distance, her next project.

The sultry, almost mysterious deep voice of Barber is unique on the current jazz scene. She caresses lyrics in a different way, even when the tempo is faster. On slower tunes, with her intimate lyrics, she seduces you in, welcomes you to her world expressed in a poetic style of lyric writing.

She's been widely praised as the next hip thing, and called "the Ice Queen from Hell" by critic Will Friedwald for a style he perceives as standoffish. But she's comfortable with who she is and what she does. Her vision is as clear and strong as her speaking voice and calm, thoughtful nature. She appears to be able to handle anything, the praise or the criticism. The praise is quite warranted.

"I probably would sell more records if I did things a different way, but then I wouldn't be quite happy. I can't really complain—I've done well. I've been very careful all along. Even when I was working bars, I was very careful with my money. I have a nice lifestyle," she says. And her audience may not fill stadiums, but it's there. It waits for her next work. It listens. It appreciates that Barber is an artist who is reaching.

"You have to content yourself, perhaps," she ponders, "with being more important to fewer people. Sometimes you feel bad that you're not selling a million records, but then you wouldn't be on the cutting edge of anything. They're incompatible. They're mutually exclusive. So you just have to make that choice and I think I've made it, so I have to live with it."

"It's an art thing," she discloses. "I don't know why people do art. Why does Dave Douglas keep doing what he's doing? He's so prolific and he's so incredibly good. You wonder why anybody does that. He's an artist, that's why."

So Barber keeps working, keeps looking for more, both as singer, writer and pianist. She's been through the bars and smoky, crusty clubs of Chicago, where she was born and raised. Patricia Barber is someone we're going to hear from for a long time. Thankfully.

"I'm still practicing piano. I want to be as good as Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau. I keep thinking I can get it," she chuckles, "I'm gonna nail this, you know?"

So adamant, is Barber, about improving her piano chops, she plays a weekly gig in the Chicago suburbs with a bassist where she doesn't sing. She just works out on piano in a restaurant that she won't name, though she admits, "People know about it by word of mouth now. They're starting to crowd around the piano."

But she does know where her strengths, and career, lie. "I think because I'm a singer, I probably work more. It seems to be something people relate to: the voice over the instrumentation."

Since she came onto the scene with Café Blue in 1995 (garnering much more attention then her earlier A Distortion of Love ), Barber has been gathering steam. Her years of paying dues in the Windy City's club scene — "a lot of years of smoke and late nights" — have paid off.

Barber said she started hearing the music for Verse three years ago, feeling it as a guitar-influenced album; a Joni Mitchell-influenced way of expressing jazz, but funneled through Barber's intimate, personal touch. It doesn't even feature her strong piano playing (fine this time around, she says, because it made producing the recording a bit easier. When she produced her previous CD, Nightclub, "there were times I thought I would keel over" from exhaustion, mental and physical).

She said there is no theme to the lyrical CD; it's really about songwriting and about her feelings. Writing, she said, is a laborious process. She doesn't just churn things out for the sake of getting something out. The technique is different too. "Sometimes the writing is music driven and sometimes lyric driven," she says.

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