The fellowship of jazz

December 3, 2004
By Andrew Gilbert

If there's such a thing as a typical jazz vocalist, Patricia Barber doesn't fit the profile.

It isn't her considerable skill as a pianist that sets her apart. Dena DeRose is fully as hip a self-accompanist. Neither is it Barber's voice, an attractive contralto that isn't particularly flexible or expressive. Rather, what distinguishes the cerebral singer-songwriter from virtually all of her peers is the keen intelligence of her original material, informed lately by her literary ambition.

Barber arrives in the Bay Area next week with her longtime working band for a series of shows, including Monday in Santa Cruz and a two-night stand in Oakland, starting on Tuesday. She'll be concentrating on material from her latest Blue Note release, ``Live: A Fortnight in France,'' which features several standards, such as ``Laura'' and ``Witchcraft,'' and five new Barber pieces.

The revenge fantasy ``Gotcha'' kicks off the disc, opening with the ominous queries, ``Did you ever think a piano could fall on your head? Do you look over shoulder at all?'' Barber fans will recognize the tune as a worthy addition to her repertoire of angry dress-downs. The musician isn't exorcising personal demons so much as tapping into the universal satisfaction at ne'er-do-wells receiving their comeuppance.

``One of my friends is going through a nasty divorce; so that was the inspiration, `I'm gonna get ya!' '' Barber says from her home in Chicago. ``People love angry songs. They don't think there are enough. I try to stay away from my own specifics. I try to become more of a fiction writer these days. It would kill me if I had to live every situation that I write about.''

When she isn't heaping scorn on ripe targets, Barber can be found diagnosing the ills of Western civilization, as in her tune ``Whiteworld,'' a searing indictment of imperialism. While the song seems to be a commentary on recent U.S. foreign policy, don't think for a second that she's bashing the country to score points with her many French fans.

``When the U.S. is criticized by France, Germany and Holland, you have to laugh and think, `We learned from you,' '' Barber says. ``You taught us well. And now here we are doing the same thing you did for centuries.''

Ultimately, Barber takes a long view of humanity's failings. In the midst of ``Whiteworld,'' she interpolates a verse from Sophocles that encapsulates the confrontation in which Oedipus unwittingly slays his father, a verse that concludes, ``I had to kill them all,'' as if bloodshed were inescapable. ``It's outrageous, but it's ancient,'' Barber says. ``It's an old instinct.''

The ancient world has been Barber's biggest source of inspiration in recent months, which is one reason that ``Fortnight'' is her first CD in two years. She has spent much of her time working on her most ambitious project yet, a song cycle based on figures from classical mythology. She started thinking about the project after seeing a production of Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of Ovid's epic poem ``Metamorphosis.'' But Barber began working on the piece only after winning a Guggenheim Fellowship Award in 2003, making her the first singer-songwriter ever to receive the prestigious grant.

``I thought these characters are so rich and pliable,'' she says. ``I wonder if I could write songs based on some of them. I made a proposal in my head and then I went ahead and sent it to the Guggenheim Foundation, not thinking I would get it. But I thought they should be petitioned anyway for the sake of jazz, to open up their support a little bit. And I got it! If I hadn't, I don't think I would have felt I had the luxury of doing this; it's such an unusual project.''

Barber has written nine songs so far and may add a tenth. She has been introducing the pieces gradually into her performances, testing out rhythms and tempos. She'll officially unveil the entire work next year.

The Guggenheim fellowship is one sign of Barber's growing stature as a composer. While other artists have yet to start covering her songs, that may change with the recent publication of ``The Patricia Barber Songbook,'' which contains lyrics and sheet music for 37 of her compositions.

Her confidence in her work has been growing in recent years, as evidenced by her 2002 album ``Verse,'' her first CD devoted entirely to her own songs. With its elaborate word play and poetic imagery, the album captures a panoply of moods, from the culinary seduction of ``I Could Eat Your Words'' to the Mose Allison-esque kiss-off ``You Gotta Go Home.''