“Indeed, in an age when pipsqueak voices and easy-listening sensibilities routinely draw critical praise and commercial success, Barber has emerged as the anti-diva: a singer uninterested in assuming the usual romantic poses, a songwriter unwilling to pen cloyingly sweet love songs, a pianist who actually has something distinctive to say at the keyboard.” –Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune Each generation has had its potent songwriters, the composers of music and lyrics that address universal themes – love, loss and social commentary. We’ve moved from George Gershwin and Cole Porter to Rodgers and Hart, from Lennon and McCartney to Joni Mitchell to Nick Drake, and to the jazz genre’s current crop of composer/performers like Esperanza Spalding, Gretchen Parlato, Gregory Porter and Kurt Elling. Yet, be it love, loss or satire, no one among active jazz performers melds notes and words with the powerful fragility, the delicate incision, the brazen honesty of Patricia Barber. As a pianist and vocalist, she is a force to be reckoned with. As a songwriter, she is pure devastation. Be ready to be devasted at the Dakota on Thursday, November 7th, when Patricia Barber returns for one night, two sets of dark magic. In a sea of vocal jazz talent, Chicago-based Patricia Barber floats to the top due to her imaginative, often witty original lyrics, her hauntingly beautiful melodies, and her daring, topsy-turvy renovations of standards and pop covers. A native of suburban Chicago, Barber was genetically predisposed to follow the jazz life; her father, Floyd “Shim” Barber, played sax with Glen Miller. Studying psychology and classical music at the University of Iowa, she switched to jazz, later moving back to Chicago and literally launching her career in 1984 with a standing engagement (5 nights per week) at the famed Gold Star Sardine Bar. Her compositions as well as her performance chops proved popular, and in 1994, she moved her work to the epicenter of Chicago jazz, the Green Mill, where she still has a regular, and very popular, gig when not on tour. Wrote Chicago Magazine, in voting her "Best Torch Singer" in 1999, “You've got to love a singer who can deliver Paul Anka ("She's a Lady"), Jim Morrison ("Light My Fire"), and e.e. cummings ("Love, Put on Your Faces") in a single set... a songwriter who gets Pierre Boulez, Bill Gates, and Karl Marx into the same smart lyric and still manages to give it a sexy groove." After recording Split for Floyd Records in 1989, Barber next released her major label debut, A Distortion of Love, on Antilles in 1992. However, it was Café Blue (Blue Note/Premonition) that became a hit two years later. Introducing listeners to her trademark dark and haunting contralto and “hip” intellectual stage presence, Café Blue was also the first of several albums that Barber would produce herself. Named "Female Vocalist/Talent Deserving Wider Recognition" (for the first time) in the 1995 Down Beat International Critics Poll, Barber went on to release Modern Cool (1998); an abbreviated live date, Companion (1999); Night Club (2000), a set of reinterpretations of jazz standards; and then a set of all original material on the highly acclaimed Verse (2002). Barber’s 2004 release, Live: A Fortnight in France, was recorded over performances in three cities (La Rochelle, Metz, and Paris). In 2003, Barber was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in the category of Music Composition, a rare achievement for a jazz artist and the first given to a songwriter. Barber used the Fellowship to further explore composition, culminating in a nine-part song cycle (Mythologies, 2006) that drew inspiration from Greek mythology, Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Wrote Howard Reich in the Chicago Tribune, “It pushes at the outskirts of widely accepted definitions of jazz, in that it encompasses a pop sensibility at one moment, classical expression the next and passages of hip-hop verse and triumphal choral writing, to boot.” It may seem odd that Patricia Barber moved from Ovid to Cole Porter, with her Cole Porter Mix on Blue Note (2008). Yet she often has included a cover or two of Porter in her live shows, demonstrating that no tune, “standard” or mythical, is immune from her unorthodox, inventive interpretation. Over the past few years, Barber has continued her popular Green Mill residency in Chicago; initiated a download-only CD series (Monday Night, Volume 1 and Volume 2, recorded live during her Monday nights at the Green Mill with her PBQ ensemble; and completed a DVD project, Patricia Barber & Kenny Werner-- 'Live' in Concert, capturing a two-piano, sold-out concert at the 1000- seat Pick-Staiger Auditorium. But perhaps no recording sums Barber’s talents as fiercely as her 2013 Concord debut, Smash. She’s never been one to mince words, even if the words were penned by Cole Porter or John Lennon. Here, as on many of her previous recordings, the words and melodies are entirely her own, the themes primarily of lost love with far less direct political commentary—less overt satire-- as past works. And while original lyrics have always been central to Barber’s songs, more than ever, these are poems set to music, and as poetry, these pieces are sophisticated literature worthy of the New Yorker. Thirteen such poems form the song cycle of Smash, not only Barber’s first for Concord, but the recording debut of her new quartet, including long-time bassist Larry Kohut plus guitarist John Kregor and drummer Jon Deitmeyer. Every time she takes the stage, Barber demonstrates her chops as a unique interpreter of songs as well as gifted composer, one who defies classification beyond the generic branding of “jazz musician.” And while it’s easy to define her as a vocalist, don’t be surprised if you find Patricia Barber to be one of the most innovative pianists you’ve heard in years.
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor THE JAZZ POLICE