Having fun with Patricia Barber

Patricia Barber
Blue Note/Premonition
Whenever I think of Patricia Barber, I think of someone who is very serious about her art. For instance, her latest album, Nightclub (Blue Note/Premonition), features painstakingly faithful versions of the standards that she often plays during her nightclub sets. Yet, during the course of our interview, she used the word "fun" nearly half a dozen times to refer to her music and her work. If she's having as much fun as she seems to be, then the listener should too. You can begin your fun by reading what Ms. Barber has to say.

Gregg Shapiro: Many things have happened since the last time we spoke in the fall of 1998. One of the things that occurred is that you contributed the track "Winter," to the Lesbian Community Cancer Project benefit disc High Risk. Can you please tell me how you became involved in the project?

Patricia Barber: It was actually just a phone call. It went through official channels - the record company and my manager - and all I had to do was say yes.

GS: Have you done other benefit discs?

PB: No. I've certainly done other benefits, but lately I've been trying to pick very carefully what it is I do. Otherwise you end up doing that all the time and you don't have any energy for anything else.

GS: Also, when we spoke two years ago, you were being courted by a couple of different major labels, and have since signed with Blue Note Records. Can you please say something about that?

PB: I signed with (Chicago-based) Premonition, and then Blue Note wanted to distribute my CDs, so they signed a special distribution deal with Premonition that had to be approved by me. It was very much about my records, and doesn't necessarily guarantee that Premonition can get their other records out through Blue Note, although Blue Note has the option to choose what, of the other catalog, that they want to use.

GS: How did it feel to become involved in such a deal with Blue Note?

PB: That was exciting. There was a two hundred and fifty page contract that I had to look over. One of those corporate things. It's certainly been fun. We went ahead and made the record, Modern Cool, on Premonition/Blue Note. The live record Companion and the new record, Nightclub, that's going to be out soon. They're Premonition slash Blue Note releases. They both have their insignia on there, and that's fine. I run into Blue Note people, including the president Bruce Lundvall, who's a sweetheart, everywhere. All across the world, they're there; they're there in London, they're there in Norway.

GS: They're an international presence.

PB: They definitely are.

GS: I'm glad you mentioned the live disc COMPANION. Why did you decide to release a live disc after so much time has gone by?

PB: That was an idea proposed by the record company. It was supposed to be a "companion," literally, to Modern Cool. It was supposed to extend the artistic vision of Modern Cool and give people a taste of the live performance. We hadn't done anything live up to that point. Really, in my mind, it was an extension of Modern Cool, which, to me, it musically was. It was supposed to be fun. It was one of the projects on which I didn't work as hard as the others. I pulled out a lot of the repertoire that we had been doing live, that people liked, and we did it at the Green Mill, which is home for me.

GS: On COMPANION, you worked with Jason Narducy of Verbow. How did that come about?

PB: That was my idea. I wanted to re-do "Touch Of Trash" with a different solo sound. I thought it would be fun to sing every other chorus with a man. I thought it would be a fun sound for that. I was really actively looking for a rock singer and Jason sent me a CD. I just loved his voice, so I picked it. GS: Will you be returning the favor, and appear on a Verbow disc?

PB: Well, if he would ever ask me, I suppose (laughs), yeah.

GS: The material on your new studio album Nightclub is of a more traditional variety. Can you tell me how you went about selecting the songs?

PB: It was something that I wanted to do. It wasn't the record company's idea, it was my idea. It's because it's what I have been doing every night for twenty years. If you come and hear me late at night, the bulk of material that I do is the standard repertoire. I certainly stick in originals and fun covers, but the real core of my repertoire are the standards. I had stayed away from doing standards all these years because I didn't want to be cataloged in a very narrow way, that can easily happen with jazz singers. I feel that I forged an identity now, and so now I am able to do it. This is really for my late night fans, and for my Mom who has been waiting for this record for a long time.

GS: What was your method for staying true to the standards?

PB: As a producer, I was very careful not to step out of the material; not to let any of the instrumentalists pull it away; not to use it as a vehicle for improvisation as much as to have a discipline about staying within the material. In my viewpoint, that would be more like the old artists. How do I put this? I had been offered a hotshot producer for this project, and I said no. He said to me, "Let's do all blue tunes. Or let's do all this or that." It was a hook. And I said, "I don't want to do a hook. I want this to be the purest project that I'm going to be doing." It will either stand or fall on its own merits, and that will be done within a very narrow band. You have to listen carefully for the material as it plays down. The bass player, the drummer, the pianist, the singer. There aren't any cheap tricks at all.

GS: It's respectful of the material.

PB: Yes, very respectful. Right.

GS: The first time I ever heard the song "You Don't Know Me" was in 1977, when both Kenny Loggins and Bette Midler included covers of that song on their respective discs. I fell in love with the song at that time. Why did you choose to cover it?

PB: The interesting thing about most of this material is that it's material that I've been doing at the club at night for years. I've been asked about "You Don't Know Me," and I can't remember when I learned that tune. There are a lot of tunes that professionals, who have been playing for many years, don't remember anymore where they picked up a song. By osmosis, you know? Musicians tend to be able to play almost anything that they hear. If you've been doing it for any length of time, there's probably not a standard out there that I'm not familiar with in some way. I can't explain this, except to say that I found what I thought was an interesting musical idea for it, which was basically to use a pedal tone on the piano. That gave it a kind of Keith Jarrett insistence, a tiny little bit. I just started doing that at the club and, boy, did we get a response. That's always a good test for me is what kind of a response I get at the club. For some reason people relate to that song. I don't know why.

GS: Brazilian singer Bebel Gilberto also covers "Summer Samba" on her album. What do you think of the Latin music revival?

PB: I love that. It's one of my biggest influences. I think you can hear it in my singing and everything I do. I do sing in Portuguese, but I would never put it on a recording, because you have so many Brazilians who do it better. But I do it almost every night when I perform. I just love, love, love that material. It's very dear to me, all of it.

GS: As a jazz musician in Chicago, I was wondering how you felt about the thriving improvisational music scene in Chicago, represented by labels such as Thrill Jockey Records, and do you ever foresee the two worlds coming together?

PB: They don't come together much. They really don't. It seems almost like a whole other circle of people. I love the fact that Chicago's got a lot of clubs and that people are going out and hearing music. I went to the Nerve Center the other day, and I love that space. I don't know that much about that music (scene, about which you are asking), and I wish them well.

GS: There have been photographs by your former partner photographer Valerie Booth, on some of your previous album covers, and I was wondering if her work would be appearing on the new album?

PB: Yes, she has a stunning photograph inside the CD, really stunning, that will be on posters and t-shirts and such, with a little prose piece that I wrote about what it feels like to perform in a nightclub late at night. There are no liner notes on the CD, just that.
---Gregg Shapiro ---