Barber Takes Charge
Patricia Barber was in a desperate state. Chafing under
the pressure to keep a recent Southwestern tour in gear, despite nagging
physical problems and other discontents, the Chicago-based singer-pianist
had sneaked off to the Albuquerque, N.M., airport and bought a ticket
Waiting out the hours until her departure, alone and undetected, she thought she was in the clear.
But in a scene out of a movie thriller, she heard her name being paged repeatedly over the public address system and then spotted people looking for her.
Her whereabouts, she later found out, had been traced via her credit card transaction. She hid in a corner, crying, seeking solace from friends on her cell phone.
"It was really scary," Barber said recently over an espresso drink at her neighborhood coffee bar. "I really understood what artists like Patsy Cline went through, the lengths to which people will go to keep you in line.
"I was tired, I was sick, I had a muscular problem in my arm, but none of that seemed to make a difference to anyone. Everyone has such a vested financial interest in you touring, and I was not strong enough in resisting the forces that wanted me out there."
From an artist who projects such a hard-edged cool, her admission of weakness may surprise some of her fans. Finding herself in such a vulnerable position certainly surprised Barber.
Disillusioned by what she saw as the cold corporate tactics of Polygram--where she recorded, through its Antilles subsidiary, "Distortion of Love" (1992)--Barber had taken steps to assert control over her music and career. When Blue Note entered into an unprecedented distribution deal last year with her small Chicago-based label, Premonition, to get her on its roster, she retained that control.
With fellow singer-pianist Diana Krall paying ever-higher dividends as jazz's hottest female commodity, though, greater expectations were thrust on Barber. According to her, she found herself at the mercy of the star-making system, playing substandard clubs she had avoided as an independent and settling for substandard dollars. She's sure she won't get caught in that trap again. "They now know at all times that I may leave," she said, referring to her tour personnel, label bosses and bandmates.
But as she prepared to launch "Nightclub," her first studio album to be co-released by Premonition and Blue Note, Barber was in a mood to stay the course. A valentine to her favorite performance setting, "Nightclub" celebrates the art of playing intimately in the moment, of feeding off a small but committed audience and adjusting to its mood and expectations.
Departing from the pop leanings, edgy irony and poetic quests of "Cafe Blue" (1994) and "Modern Cool" (1998), the new disc finds Barber striving after jazz purity in covering standards such as "Yesterdays," "Just for a Thrill" and "Alfie." Barber's aim in staking out this turf was to claim a place for herself in the tradition of singer-pianists including Nina Simone, Shirley Horn, Nat King Cole--and Krall, whom people expect her to dislike, but whom she admires and respects.
"I'm proud of that tradition," said Barber, who will perform with her trio in a record-release party Friday night at the Park West, 322 W. Armitage ("Nightclub" came out Tuesday). "There aren't many of us out there. It was important for me to commit to it without lifelines."
Blue Note, as is its wont, wanted her to come up with a snappy concept for the album. Barber turned down a name producer who wanted to concoct a collection of hip songs from the early '60s, one of her favorite eras.
Barber also rejected overtures to continue in the vein of her previous efforts. "I could and will do another `Modern Cool,' but not this time," said the artist, who's in her mid-40s. "I've been smart and slick and hip. This time, I wanted authenticity."
Recorded in Chicago, "Nightclub" features three trios--none of them her working threesome, though her longtime bassist Michael Arnopol is heard on three tracks. The other players, noted East Coasters, include bassist Marc Johnson (who played in Barber hero Bill Evans' final trio and on "Distortion of Love"), drummers Adam Nussbaum and Adam Cruz and guitarist Charlie Hunter.
Barber, who produced the album herself, was vigilant in not letting the guest-star factor dilute the personal import of her sound. Known for simultaneously playing lead and bass on his unusual eight-string instrument, Hunter was asked to pare down his style to basics. As with the great young trumpeter Dave Douglas, who found himself redoing his parts several times on "Modern Cool," the guitarist responded with a strong, empathic performance.
"I don't want anyone to use a tune simply as an improvisational vehicle, but to stay within the emotional band of the song," she said. "It used to be, you didn't have to point that out. When Lester Young played with Billie Holiday, he knew not to mess with the emotional narrative she was trying to deliver. All the great players knew that.
"But now, jazz is such a sport, I have to say what is perfectly obvious. I say here's the structure of the song: I love you, I can't be without you, it looks like I'm losing you, followed by a solo. The solo can't be 12 choruses of John Coltrane."
"Nightclub" is dedicated to the two Chicago haunts where Barber has enjoyed long residences: the now-shuttered Gold Star Sardine Bar, where she honed her style, and the Green Mill, where she recently gave up her Sunday torch-singing gig (she continues to perform there on Mondays with her trio when she's in town).
For Barber, there is no better place than the Mill to wind down, and wind back up, after a bout of high-stress touring. But as she looks forward to a dream gig in Paris in November, the memory of her nightmare in New Mexico is fast fading.
After expanding her fan base with performances at various European festivals last summer, "the new dark lady of jazz," as an Italian newspaper tagged her, is finding more light at the end of the fast track.