Patricia Barber swings with feeling, and with brains
Pianist has strong presence. Thoughtfully hip lyrics, modernist style give Chicago artist an individual vision

July 5, 2006

With the flood of female vocalists out there trying to imitate Diana Krall, it is a distinct pleasure to listen to Patricia Barber.

Those who know the Chicago-based singer/pianist are familiar with her thoughtfully hip lyrics, reflecting on love and the search for answers, or at least the right questions.

Barber is more than urban cool; she is also a pianist with a strong presence and individual modernist style. That, too, sets her apart from all those ballad-cooing Krall wannabes.

Those who don't know Barber might want to check her out the next time she hits town: Her show at the Spectrum tonight was among the first jazz festival concerts to sell out.

An alternative is to check out her CDs, including the soon-to-be released Mythologies (scheduled for release next month).

It's a lyrical song cycle she composed based on Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Sounds intellectual, but hey, it swings because Barber swings - thoughtfully, backed by a superb quartet.

As the music flows, sip your scotch slowly, set it aside, savour the words, and catch the dream.

Barber introduces The Moon on Mythologies with some dazzling keyboard runs, then chants, "I can be fire / I can be war / I am the daughter of Zeus / But tonight there won't be light / 'cause I can't shine without you."

In Narcissus, she confesses, "I'm falling in love with her / hopelessly smitten / and strangely driven / to stop / and stare / and wonder / How have I been here before / And why do I want more and more."

On the phone from Chicago, Barber explained she was influenced as a young musician by Czech novelist Milan Kundera urging artists to create "a ruthlessly individual vision, from the inside out."

"That struck me at the time and I decided I was going to do that."

Barber started following that dictum with her third CD, 1994's Cafe Blue, a mix of covers and originals.

"At that point it started sounding like me and it sounded like me ever since then."

She credits the Chicago scene for sustaining her as she developed her art, in particular through her regular gigs at clubs.

Chicago, after all, is where Louis Armstrong made his highly regarded small-group recordings in the mid-1920s. It is where the urban blues took root, and Philip Roth and the late Saul Bellow have been among its citizens.

Barber likes it that way.

"It's a very rich city culturally, with a huge theatre community - which brings in a lot of people who are good with words - the Chicago Symphony, and two great universities, which keep the city sophisticated and smart.

"We also have all this urban, cultural diversity, which gives it a kind of snap, crackle and pop."

Barber is all about intimacy, and she travels with her own sound technician, who makes sure the voice and the words come across as clearly as the band.

But getting across to a Montreal audience - even in the nightclub-like atmosphere of the Spectrum - has never been a problem, she confided.

"The people in Montreal are wonderful in that they are listening very carefully.

"I can't think of a thing I wouldn't try there."

The same is true of her relationship with Blue Note Records, which is now recording and distributing her work.

"From the beginning, they understood that I had artistic control. It's in the contract."

Though Barber is taking it easy this summer, she is booked to tour extensively in the fall, from South Korea to France, Spain and Italy, and through much of the U.S.

The focus will be the Mythologies music, including a piece called Icarus that is clearly inspired by Joni Mitchell, for whom Barber has the highest regard.

"She's been a big influence on my writing."

Other artists from whom Barber has borrowed ideas range from industrial rockers Nine Inch Nails to pop star George Michael.

As for the lyrics, inspirations range from Dante to Alfred Tennyson.