Jazz Singer Patricia Barber pushes the envelope
Datebook, San Francisco, CA

February 25, 2001
By Dan Ouellette

Patricia Barber
Blue Note/Premonition

Jazz thrives on happenstance. Forgetting the chord change of a song can usher in a new melody; playing a wrong note can lead to a fresh harmony.

In the case of singer-pianist Patricia Barber, a recording studio fluke 10 years ago positioned her as a forerunner in exploring a jazz-vocal alternative to the standards tradition. Killing time between tracks, her band mate Marc Johnson spun off the bass line to the Temptations' pop hit "My Girl" (written by Smokey Robin- son), and Barber joined in on piano. After a lyrics sheet was quickly procured, the tune was taped and featured on her Antilles debut, " A Distortion of Love."

"At the time, no one else was recording contemporary pop tunes in a jazz vein," says Barber, one of six vocalists appearing at this weekend's SFJAZZ spring series program, "The Voice" (she co-headlines Friday at Herbst Theatre with Andy Bey). Her album predated by a year Cassandra Wilson's similarly groundbreaking "Blue Light Til Dawn" disc.

"I do feel like a postmodern pioneer," said Barber, who is based in Chicago. "Soon after, all music began to be viewed as viable material for jazz vocalists and instrumentalists. The old repertoire distinctions between popular music and jazz were falling away."

In New York for two sold-out shows at Joe's Pub, Barber sits at a table in the back room of the packed Carnegie Deli at lunchtime and reflects on the jazz-vocal changes of the past decade. A key hurdle was convincing listeners that there was life after the deaths of such iconic singers as Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRea and Ella Fitzgerald.

"Many jazz fans lost the ability to imagine the future. Anything innovative in jazz vocals has taken place in spite of people lamenting the loss of Sarah, Carmen and Ella," she says.

"People try to appropriate, copyright and own the music, but it refuses to be contained. In spite of the people who don't want to see music change, it finds its way like water coursing through rocks. That's what it's going to take for jazz to survive."

A classically trained pianist, Barber moved to Chicago from Iowa in 1979 and began to pay her dues in area clubs. While her early endeavors were "trashed" and she was so broke she often made do on a diet of hot dogs, she got a break in 1984 at the Gold Star Sardine Bar, where she settled in with her trio.

"It was a great gig," she says. "It started with two people in the bar. A year later there were lines of people around the block waiting to get in."

For eight years she played for six hours a night, six days a week. The club owner insisted that she play and sing only standards. "It was a great learning experience. Night after night I kept adding in new material and learning how to deal with an audience."

Eager to expand her scope, Barber moved her show to the Green Mill Jazz Club (formerly Al Capone's North Side headquarters) and explored originals and covers. She kept her criterion high: "Jazz audiences demand sophistication. You can't take a stupid pop song and leave it stupid. You have to smarten up the changes or play a smart solo."

Committed to maintaining her creative freedom, Barber signed with Chicago indie label Premonition and -beginning with her 1994 gem "Cafe Blue" and continuing with 1998's "Modern Cool" - began to garner rave reviews. The keys to her success were her quirky and gorgeous originals (including the lyrical beauty "Let It Rain" and the witty character sketch "Touch of Trash"} and her intriguing covers {from an 11th century Gregorian chant to such pop hits as Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe," Paul Anka's "She's a Lady" and the Doors' "Light My Fire").

Last year Barber threw a curveball to her new fans. She released "Nightclub," a joint project with Premonition and major jazz label Blue Note. The 12-song set of "old" standards provided a revealing snap- shot of her intuitive brilliance as a pianist and singer. "Oh, yeah, people were confused," she says dryly. "There I was on a roll by playing my own songs and pop covers with a trashy kind of sound, and I proceeded to do something completely different. I guess it's just because I like to be contrary." She smiles slyly and adds, "I've always had a bad attitude."

Oddly, "Nightclub" is on its way to being Barber's best-selling recording, which has raised other issues, including critical backlash. "I should have expected it. Critics who were supportive became suspicious. They thought I was selling out artistically." She laughs. "They thought I calculated this. Well, if they think I concocted this equation, wait till the next one."

Also, because "Nightclub" has such long legs, Barber is performing more frequently on the road. That's a big plus for her fans. Her sets are emotionally haunting, more dramatic than they are entertaining, and it can be an uncomfortable ordeal for her. "I have a bit of stage fright, which might explain the intensity." Barber says.

Is that why she often plays with her face close to the keys? "Yeah, and it's also why I part my hair this way." She dips her head so that her rnidlength brown hair drops like a curtain in front of the right side of her face. "My hairdresser wanted me to change my part, but I won't let him."

Detractors have interpreted Barber's on- stage demeanor as an act of pretentiousness. Her response?

"Yeah, OK, so I'm pretentious," she says , with a slight bristle in her voice. "That's not what I'm feeling onstage. I'm actually afraid, you know. But pretentious, well, sure, partly because of my carriage, my smart and smart-alecky songs and because I'm 6 feet tan. No one in my whole life has ever let me get away with being just shy. You have to be pretentious and arrogant. You can't be 6 foot and shy. If people can't put the two together, so be it."