Patricia Barber Smashes Past Convention
Written by Peggy Hogan
Wednesday, 30 January 2013
Patricia Barber is a fiercely individual, critically lauded jazz vocalist, pianist and composer. After a few decades worth of education, honors and awards and fifteen full-length albums, Barber will be making a rare tour to promote her latest offering, Smash. Times Square spoke to the enigmatic figure about her place in jazz as a woman and as a composer.
Times Square (TS): You've said that as a young woman you thought that jazz was a stupid thing for a smart woman to do, and I'm wondering if you can expand on that particularly from the point of view as a woman who has successfully carved her way into a place in the contemporary jazz idiom?
Patricia Barber (PB): Well it's many years later, but I just looked at my friends who are doctors and lawyers and thought 'What am I doing?' There's no security, no health insurance, no this, no that.
TS: So it was more of a job security concern for you.
PB: It's a really horribly insecure lifestyle. I was a smart woman, so I could have easily done a number of things, but I chose instead to do this.
TS: I'm wondering what your thoughts on in terms of being a woman in jazz, since there is still, though less than before, this sense of the jazz world being a bit of a boy's club?
PB: Well, because I'm a singer, there's also a bit of a singer thing in jazz. I'm also a pianist, so I get treated with a bit more respect than I would if I were just a singer – sometimes I treat singers the same way. But well sure – guys tend to stick together and they talk about guy things. For the most part, I sometimes don't want to be a part of their conversation. They protect themselves; they don't want to talk about anything emotional on the road. It can be lonely on the road, and I never work with a woman, it's impossible. It's usually just a little pack of my side-guys. It's also a leader mentality too. I don't think it's just about being a woman, I think if you're a leader you're going to be eating alone, and usually I bring a companion with me. It all has to do with the particular guys.
TS: Can you comment on how you approach melody as a composer - if you tend to think about it from a specific standpoint and if so, if you think about it more as a singer or as a pianist?
PB: If we're talking about melody specifically, it's all about the song, and not necessarily the ensemble at all, but the song, and how the melody works with the harmony and the rhythm. It's not always the first thing I come up with, sometimes it is, but not always, and some things are always very melodic, and tend to be more narrative.
TS: The songs on Smash tend to have a really equitable balance between jazz conventions and a more contemporary mood – Can you comment on how you think you achieve this type of blend in your music, and specifically, how your influences play into this?
PB: I really set out to do that many years ago, and everything I write has been working toward that end. I listen to a lot of contemporary classical music, I go to a lot of concert, I listen to classical music and pop music. I have younger people, students and nieces and nephews that give me music that they think I should hear. I pretty much like it all – I think it just goes into my brain and then it comes out sounding a certain way. I don't try to make it sound like anything in particular. It all ends up coming out sounding something like me.
TS: You are playing a three night run at the Jazz Standard starting on the 31st, and I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on playing that particular venue, or the upcoming show itself?
PB: We are starting off this weekend in Boston with the new album, and then we're going onto New York, and then eventually LA. So is New York different than these other places? They're not nicer to me or anything – but you know, it's New York. I think I can tell a New York audience with my eyes closed. They kind of hold back awhile, they're not going to give you much until you work for it, but if you work for it, then they're in your corner.
TS: Are you going to be playing a similar set each night, or are you going to explore your previous repertoire in addition to playing tunes off of Smash?
PB: I try to do that when I'm on the road promoting a record, but it's hard to commit to because I particularly get bored playing the same stuff. I will try to rotate in and out the tunes from Smash.