RIFFS: JAZZ NOTES
An American Original, Patricia Barber,
At Iron Horse
February 12, 2009

by OWEN MCNALLY

Singer/pianist/songwriter Patricia Barber is graced with a dark, sensuous voice, lyrical piano chops, striking good looks and a razor sharp, wit that energizes her edgy, film noir lyrics and wry, expressive melodies. An American original, this former cult figure whose talent was nourished in dimly lighted Chicago jazz dives, now basks in the glare of international acclaim as an uncompromising artist. Her freewheeling imagination and resilient spirit have made her one of the continuously evolving, surprising delights of the 21st century. On the road again promoting her new album, "The Cole Porter Mix" (Blue Note Records), Barber performs with her band tonight at 7 at The Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton, Mass. Tickets: $22, advance; $25 at door. Information: www.iheg.com and 413-584-0610. Whatever Barber performs, whether Great American Songbook material, contemporary pop, jazz standards or her own songs, it all comes out sounding new. Bending, reshaping and deconstructing the original work, she transforms even the most familiar song into something wholly fresh and seductive, quite often mysterious and enigmatic, always flirting with at least seven types of ambiguity.

Along with artful renditions of 10 Porter-penned standards, Barber contributes three Porter-inspired originals, her personal homage to one of her early songwriting idols. In an interview with The Courant in 2002, Barber expressed her love for Porter material, which she had been singing for years. Porter was part of her repertoire, she said, going all the way back to her early days as a young, scuffling Chicago singer whose radically innovative approach, even back then, was creating a certain cachet and excitement, foreshadowings of the now international Barber mystique.
Proud Porterphile
Confessing her Porter mania, Barber told The Courant: "I love Cole Porter, who wrote harmonic changes that jazz musicians will play forever in 'Love for Sale' and 'What Is This Thing Called Love?' His words are so clever, so witty, so ironic and so smart."

On "The Cole Porter Mix," which is sure to be the main course for tonight's servings at the Iron Horse, Barber and her band fly through "In the Still of the Night," fueled by a swinging samba groove. In the same celebratory bag, they take playful liberties with "Easy to Love," which dances to a straight bossa nova beat. An unusual key, sophisticated chord substitutions and a fresh, vibrant chart add extra kick to "I Get a Kick Out of You."

Chris Potter, an endlessly resourceful saxophonist, makes a fine guest appearance on the Blue Note studio session. His saxophone savoir faire, Barber's romantic melodica playing and, most especially, her husky alto — as well-worn, forlorn, engagingly neurotic, erotic and Continental sounding as the classic French chanteuse Edith Piaf — bring a distinctly French flavor to "C'est Magnifique," a song from Porter's smash 1953 Broadway musical comedy, "Can-Can."

Barber, in fact, writes with a literary flair rarely found in popular music.

Whether writing about alienation and the fragmented nature of love and life, she evokes T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, even the ironic, acerbic wit and bright, succinct, arresting imagery of e.e. cummings. Literary soulmates, both Barber and cummings are skeptics and mordant wits with a gift for the lyrical.

Time magazine once called Barber a cross between Diana Krall and the noted literary lion Susan Sontag, even though she may well have a closer, writerly bond with, say, Joan Didion or Nora Ephron. Adding its voice to the "Barber boom" chorus of praise, The New York Times has proclaimed her "a beat musician and bop intellectual," a kind of hipster poet laureate of the keyboard.

Along with such obvious jazz inspirations as Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, you can hear many other artistic influences in Barber's music and lyrics.

Besides Porter, Mitchell, Laurie Anderson, Dorothy Parker and Jack Kerouac, there are such lyricists and poets as Lorenz Hart, Dorothy Fields, Ira Gershwin, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a host of other writers, composers and musicians, all like her, creating in the American grain.

Explaining her passion for writing, Barber said, "I toyed with literary theory in college. I chucked it. I hated structuralism and post-structuralism.

"I went through all the French writers, Celine, Sartre and Genet. I went through a big Hemingway thing years ago. I loved him even though I knew that he was unfashionable and not politically correct. But I did it anyway.

" Samuel Beckett is still my hero. I go back to him all the time. His work just got tighter and tighter until his final two words, 'I died.' You can't get any tighter or more concise than that," she said.

"Beckett," she added, "is all about editing right down to the bone. There's certainly a sensibility of Beckett in my writing, the sense of going somewhere and going nowhere."

Out of that melting pot of musical and literary influences, plus her personal life experience and her own individual creative energies, comes a uniquely original, visionary voice, cerebral yet visceral, and with something new and exciting to tell the world.