Patricia Barber catches people off guard. That's what a jazz musician is supposed to do. But in an era when what jazz critic Whitney Balliett famously called "the art of surprise" is practiced more outside than within the jazz mainstream, Barber is a refreshing exception: working with more or less traditional elements, she continues to confound expectations, push jazz and pop musical boundaries and reward her growing legions of faithful fans with one dazzling recording after another -- each connected to, but diverging significantly from, the last.
Now Barber, who performs Dec. 7-8 at Yoshi's in Oakland, has been taken by surprise herself. Her new album, Live: A Fortnight in France (Blue Note), recorded earlier this year at concerts in three French cities (Metz, La Rochelle and Paris), features a characteristically diverse Barber repertoire -- ominous, tricky and sardonic originals (such as "Gotcha," "Crash" and "Pieces"), reinvented standards (like "Laura" and "Witchcraft") and boomer-era pop tunes turned inside out (including "Norwegian Wood" and "Call Me") -- performed with a bracing combination of rehearsed precision and freewheeling improvisation by the telepathic quartet of Barber on piano, Neal Alger on electric and acoustic guitar, bassist Michael Arnopol and drummer Eric Montzka.
But A Fortnight in France also includes a new Barber composition, "White World," which has generated a kind of right-wing reaction rarely experienced by jazz musicians. The song starts as an indictment of First World anthropologists -- "I arrive in the jungle / with my new khaki clothes ... poking and prodding progenitors of respiratory disease are we." Barber then widens its scope to implicate military imperialists by quoting Sophocles in the song's bridge -- "I struck the driver / for pushing me aside / the old man struck me back / so that I / had to kill them all."
"We've had some conservative backlash at actual events that has been surprising," Barber said by phone from Chicago last week. "There are some Midwestern and Southern markets that are afraid of the 'improper' content of my lyrics, so, definitely, it's having an impact on my income.
"I didn't mean to stick my neck out," she continued. "The songs come out because I'm concerned about issues. Then interviewers ask about them, and that's the only way in which I'm political. 'White World' started as a kind of critical piece about anthropologists and ethnomusicologists appropriating cultures. Then I was in the middle of a war, and about halfway through the song -- the bridge is pure Sophocles -- it just started to seem that imperialism was imperialism. It's very interesting; I didn't try to write about the war -- I wasn't doing that -- but it became about that."
A strain of explicitly political content does run through jazz history. Its practitioners of protest include Billie Holiday ("Strange Fruit"), Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone and Dave Douglas. Over the course of eight albums in the past 15 years, however, Barber has been known more for using her razor-sharp wit not to slice and dice political leaders but to dissect romantic relationships, deconstruct postmodern art and criticism, carve out an aphrodisiac literary meal that rivals the palpable sensuality of the oyster-slurping scene in "Tom Jones" ("I Could Eat Your Words," from 2002's Verse) and etch a gripping portrait of paranoia: "On the dark side of passion comes a taste for revenge / In the night, is there a rustle just under your bed?" ("Gotcha," from the new live album).
At least since she broke through in 1998 with her fourth album, Modern Cool, fans and critics alike have been enthralled by Barber's literate songwriting, her deliciously warm and ripe singing and her lyrical and risk-taking piano playing. "I'm still quite intent on practicing piano at least two hours a day," she said. "Not only do I enjoy it -- on the recordings, I can hear myself improving, still."
The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation took notice in 2003 by adding Barber to a roll that includes Ansel Adams, Aaron Copland, Langston Hughes, Vladimir Nabokov, Martha Graham and Philip Roth.
Barber used her fellowship in music composition to craft an eight-song cycle based on the characters in Ovid's "Metamorphoses." Not all the songs have been integrated into live performance yet. The "big, monster piece" about Phaeton, for instance, will require a children's choir, Barber explained. "'Hunger' is a very funny song, but I can't quite get the arrangement yet. And we just tried to put 'Narcissus' in [the live set] last week. It wasn't wildly successful, because it's in 10 and kind of difficult to play."
But Oakland audiences might hear "Pygmalion" or "Orpheus" in concert. "Or 'Morpheus,' if I'm in the mood," Barber added. "It's a very quiet song, it might be my best of the song cycle. I'm proud of 'Morpheus' because of the harmonic movement. I studied the best songwriters, including Schubert. I also put in a different rhyme scheme for that one, an Alfred Tennyson rhyme scheme where the rhymes are just a little bit different. I think it works."
"White World" was the first song written for the cycle and the first to be tailored for live performance. "Oedipus was the first character I was going to take on," Barber explained. "Oedipus kills his father and sleeps with his mother, and so there you have it: 'I'm a First World Oedipus, and Mother Earth is down on her knees.' We're killing off our ancestors. Like I said, I didn't mean to be quite so political. In some ways, I'd like to backtrack and make it about snow. Too late now."
Controversy over "White World" makes Barber appreciate the markets that embrace her unreservedly. She names New York, San Francisco and Paris as examples. So it's not surprising that her new live album was culled from concerts in France.
"There is something about the 8 pm downbeat in a foreign city that brings out the best in the art," she explained. "We have a particularly good thing going in Paris and in France. I find them hard to win over, but once you win them over, they're very open to new sounds and new ideas. There's a part of their culture that is used to that -- Boulez, the dialogues they have in the newspaper and such -- so it allows us to do our wackiest, darkest and edgiest material and feel confident that it will be accepted. I would say the version of 'Norwegian Wood' is fairly wacky. 'Gotcha' is very dark, and they love that; they're not really afraid of that. 'White World' is edgy, and they're fine with that. So, it's just a perfect audience for what we were doing."
Barber's streak of Francophilia, however, hardly translates as anti-Americanism, no matter what her fearful detractors might assume. "I've always been patriotic," she said. "My partner just thought I was ridiculously patriotic when she met me. I think patriotism now is just speaking your mind. You don't have to be strident; just speak what you feel. As far as I know, all I'm doing is exercising free speech. I didn't set out to make a point. In these times, I guess a point can be made if you're just speaking your mind."