By Carolyn Graye
The longer I work in and around the arts, the more convinced I am that for many artists, the lives and careers they create for themselves are as interesting as the actual work they produce. I like to think about it in terms of the Zen parable in which the journey, not the destination, becomes the goal.
Singer/pianist/songwriter Patricia Barber is a study in contrasts and is living the parable. Her singing is expressive and intensely personal, and yet she can be somewhat reserved onstage and describes herself as 'a reluctant performer.' She understands modern jazz harmony and writes in unusual song forms but, like the best players, admits that she 'never can get very far from the blues.' She weaves melody and lyrics into some of the most intellectually challenging, moody tales of existential angst you're liable to find, then covers simplistic pop tunes that even her excellent musicianship can't always salvage.
I had a chance to ask Ms. Barber about these observations when we talked on the phone two weeks after her December engagement at Jazz Alley. She had my call forwarded to her cell phone, and started our conversation by saying 'I couldn't get home from the library in time to take your call. I'm researching (19th century composer) Hugo Wolf. I realized that I needed to know more about harmony for a song cycle I'm writing; I got a Guggenheim Fellowship for 2003-4.' I asked her to say more about winning this prestigious award and she continued, 'My friends talked me into applying for it. It hadn't been awarded to anyone in jazz, and they gave one to me and (jazz pianist) Fred Hirsch. The project I proposed is a song cycle based on Ovid's Metamorphoses. I saw Mary Zimmerman's production (of Metamorphoses) on Broadway and thought the characters suggested a narrative. It will be a full length concert and recording when I'm finished.' Ancient Roman poets, late 19th century Austrian composers of lieder and jazz don't usually come up within the space of a few sentences, but Patricia Barber is an innovative songwriter and makes the juxtaposition of style and era seem completely logical.
In 2002, Barber released her first recording of entirely original songs, titled Verse (Blue Note), which was a tribute to Joni Mitchell. The set I heard at Jazz Alley on December 5 included a beautifully stark, stripped down performance of Mitchell's 'River,' and there are some obvious similarities between the two women. However, while Joni Mitchell hires world-class players as sidemen, Ms. Barber works with her band as more of a peer and more than holds her own when it comes to her piano playing. She sees herself as being 'pretty far from mainstream jazz,' yet she opened the evening with a complex solo piano introduction before transitioning seamlessly into an instrumental piece that featured longtime associate Michael Arnopol on electric upright bass, guitarist Neil Alger and drummer Erik Montzka.
Later in our conversation, Ms. Barber talked about the challenge of maintaining creative control within an increasingly corporatized record industry. 'I remember when there used to be 40 different record labels. When I first started buying Betty Carter's records, she was still releasing them on her own label, BetCar, and selling them out of the trunk of her car. And when you'd go into the record stores, the people would know about the music and the artists. Who would have thought that it would come down to three major labels? The luxury of the Guggenheim is that I have time to think about this project and focus on it completely. They demand that you do nothing else so the only gigs we're doing now are the ones that were booked earlier, but even with this award the future is very uncertain. We'll see what the record label thinks'it's not Norah Jones. I'm under contract to Blue Note to do two records.'
Barber also considers Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Dave Frishberg, Nina Simone and Shirley Horn to be important early musical influences and describes her taste in music as 'extremely eclectic.' She specifically mentioned her interest in composer Henry Mancini's work, saying, 'Everything he did, it just turned out so perfectly. Every song is a gem.'
She calls herself 'an art freak' and finds the life of French postimpressionist painter Paul Cezanne to be particularly inspiring. 'That whole late bloomer thing about him is so compelling. He was a horrible painter at first, couldn't get into the salons in Paris, but ultimately had the discipline and tenacity to change the way we see landscapes.' She draws parallels between his life and her own and described some of her early experiences as a performer. 'I played so many shitty gigs in the beginning, you know, indifferent, noisy audiences. That continued until I stopped playing in the suburbs and started working downtown. Now it's different.'
I asked her how she made the switch from 'human jukebox' to performing artist. ' I bought a house in the ghetto. My rent was only $400 a month. I didn't have to take gigs I didn't want. I did that for five years.'
I've seen Barber perform twice and both times her audiences have been adoring. She also seems more comfortable onstage. 'Yeah, people tell me I look more relaxed. That's good, but I still feel the same way. I literally can't talk until the fifth song in the set. I have to concentrate on the music.'
Like Cezanne, Patricia Barber has found professional success in her mid-forties and continues to develop and refine her work. She insists that 'art has to connect,' and says, 'My fondest dream would be that my songwriting and performance speak effectively to the past, present and future of the jazz art form that I love. Something much larger than myself and my effort will determine if I have been successful at my artistic mission.'
Frankly, I don't connect with everything Patricia Barber does, but it doesn't matter. Her talent, intelligence, and intellectual curiosity create a level of craft that is undeniably fresh and interesting, and I can't wait to hear her new song cycle.
Visit Patricia Barber on the web at www.patriciabarber.com .