Barreling down the highway from a Minnesota gig the night before, Patricia Barber sounds exuberant.
“Minneapolis is one of my favorite places to play in the United States,” says Barber, speaking via cell phone, both hands on the steering wheel, she assures me.
“That’s because they understand English very, very well.”
Meaning that Barber’s songs – though easy enough to enjoy when listening nonchalantly – are uncommonly rich in content and reward close attention. Every syllable, every chord change, every whispering vocal turn sends a message, and if you dare to breathe, you may miss it.
Nowhere has that point emerged more succinctly than in “Higher,” her newly released recording and a high point in a discography stretching back decades. For though the Chicagoan has penned song cycles before, the one that stretches across the first eight tracks of “Higher” represents her singular art distilled to its essence. Tightly compressed lyrics, transparent musical textures, infinitesimally subtle vocal shadings, moments of unexpected silence and multiple layers of subtext define “Angels, Birds and I ...,” a suite at least five years in the making.
When you think of the song cycle’s title, it’s clear what links the angels, birds and Barber – singing, of course, each producing it by nature. Except in Barber’s case, an extraordinary amount of art, craft, sweat and technique goes into every ultra-polished vignette.
Consider the song “Higher,” which launched Barber’s venture into creating this cycle, the singer-pianist having first performed an embryonic version of the tune at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center in 2014.
“In a few tautly compressed sentences and a gently ascending melodic line, Barber just hints at her subject matter: nothing less than death and transformation,” I wrote in my review of the work-in-progress. “Played with zero sense of pulse, its phrases seemingly suspended in air, ‘Higher’ drifts into the listener's consciousness, then disappears, like a soft breeze that's gone before you knew it was there. As it now stands, ‘Higher’ is sheathed in
mystery, its haiku-like verse telegraphing a message that's only partially discernible.”
Having developed, reworked, honed and performed the song ever since, Barber has rendered the message of “Higher” clearer, if you listen intently enough.
“I wrote ‘Higher’ for my mother,” who died in 2009 at age 90, explains Barber.
“I’m asking her to lift her voice and take wing – to leave her body and the pain
The lyrics evoke the story:
“And you my true love/Have been stilled by pain/Grounded in silence/On earth you’ll remain.
“Until an air/Blows in like spring/You’ll be young again/Raise your voice, take wing.”
— “Higher” by Patricia Barber
Even before Barber began working on “Higher,” she had started to liberate herself from traditional jazz chord progressions and from the tyranny of relentless backbeats. “Higher” took her deeply into another realm.
Or, as a friend told her while she was developing the piece, “You’re getting dangerously close to the art song,” Barber told me in 2014.
In truth, she already was there.
“This all started with ‘Higher,’ and then I started thinking about the singer thing,” says Barber, meaning the theme that eventually would come to define the slowly emerging song cycle.
“Then ‘Surrender’ was second,” she adds, referring to a song about music’s seductive power to overcome our resistance.
“Then I thought: OK, this is what I’m interested in – singers and music. And at some point in there, halfway through the song cycle, that’s when I hooked up with Renee Fleming, and we did a tour together on half the song cycle.”
Chicagoans will remember star soprano Fleming partnering with Barber at the Harris Theater in December 2015, for "Higher: Renee Fleming and Patricia Barber Perform the Music of Patricia Barber." Fleming, a jazz singer early in her career who eventually became one of America’s most beloved operatic divas, would drop by the Green Mill Jazz Club to catch Barber’s Monday night sessions whenever Fleming was in town working at Lyric Opera.
The friendship and partnership that ensued inspired Barber to pen for Fleming “The Opera Song,” a verbal and musical tour de force about a disillusioned officer worker who imagines herself an opera star. On the new album, it unfolds practically as a miniature three-act opera in itself, not only in Barber’s recording but in a kind of bonus track featuring soprano Katherine Werbiansky.
Add to this the personification of music that Barber conjures in her “Muse” (dedicated to Fleming), the wicked social satire she expresses in “The Albatross Song,” the yearning for the sweet sound of birds after a long winter in “High Summer Season” – among others – and you have a work unlike anything else heard in either jazz or classical realms these days.
“The way I see it, it has been an evolution,” says Martha Feldman, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Department of Music who’s married to Barber and served as associate producer of the new album.
“The evolution is ultimately a harmonic one, but the harmonic one is inseparable from the poetry and the melodic thinking.
“I guess I would say that definitely by the time she did ‘Mythologies,’ in 2006, she’d already (broken from) some of the traditional jazz forms,” adds Feldman, referring to a stunning album in which Barber crafted a quasi-Schubertian song cycle inspired by Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” complete with choral music and passages of hip-hop.
“I think that ‘Smash,’ in 2013, was an experiment with line lengths and syllable counts that was pushing that further forward.
“But by the time she got to ‘Higher,’ she was really directly working on writing jazz that kind of evolves out of voice leading,” adds Feldman, referring to a method of composition in which the unfurling of melodies reflects the text’s cadences, and vice versa.
It takes great labors and vast swaths of time to achieve this economy of poetry and concision of musical structure, which surely helps explain why it has been six years since Barber’s last studio CD, the aforementioned “Smash.”
“It really took me that time to write this music,” says Barber.
“When you look at the time it takes to write books,” it’s not so surprising, she implies.
“And I’m dealing with the words as well, which is not something most (jazz musicians) do. Fitting these words into new harmony, or fitting new harmony around these words, or as they perhaps come together, is difficult. It looks small.
“And I guess if it’s short, it seems easy. It wasn’t easy.”
Along the way, Barber has sought help from a friend and mentor to whom she has dedicated the song “Surrender,” Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Shulamit Ran, a professor in the University of Chicago’s Department of Music.
“I took some lessons from her,” says Barber. “What she showed me, she didn’t tell me in words – it’s hard to explain harmony that way. What she showed me at the piano really stuck with me and opened up a whole new vista.”
Ran long ago was smitten by Barber’s musical innovations as singer, songwriter and pianist.
“I heard her at the Green Mill, and I thought to myself, ‘This is fantastic,’” Ran told me in 2014, on the eve of Barber unveiling the early version of “Higher” at the Logan Center.
“This was just really amazing music of tremendous imagination and very personal, very, very daring. … And then I had the realization that (musical) categories are not nearly as important as the level of imagination and creativity.”
So Barber now stands at the newest pinnacle of a long, tough, winding journey. She first came to wide attention when she was toiling as a singerpianist at the long-gone Gold Star Sardine Bar, on North Lake Shore Drive.
When I first reviewed her there, in 1990, a Valentine’s evening blizzard had forced her to walk two miles from her apartment to make the set (no cabs available).
“It's easy to understand why Barber is on her way up,” I wrote of that indelible evening. “You will not hear Dick Rogers and Earle Hagan’s ‘Harlem Nocturne’ sung more intimately or with greater languor. Barber knows how to stretch a vocal line without distorting it, and – like the best jazz singers – she dispatches lyrics with utter clarity.”
But Barber was brave enough – and musically and intellectually astute enough – to break out of the lounge-entertainer persona and aspire toward something more complex, rarefied, sophisticated and autobiographical via hersongwriting.
It was a struggle.
“To be doing what she’s been doing all these years means you don’t have a (steady) paycheck, you don’t have health insurance from any outfit,” says Feldman.
Yet Barber persevered, her efforts rewarded most recently with her election to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
“Maybe a month ago, I was getting up, and I went to turn off the porch light in the morning, as I do every morning,” says Barber.
“And there was a FedEx letter. I opened it up and read it – I didn’t have my glasses on. I figured this is an organization that was asking for money.
“So I made myself an espresso, put my glasses on and read it and said: ‘Oh my God, this is for me!’”
What’s the significance of this?
“It means that people have listening,” says Barber.
Or, as she noted in a Facebook posting when writing about what happened at a recent Academy reception: “I did not expect to be welcomed so warmly, people taking my hand, saying, for instance, ‘Hello Patricia, I’m George in astrophysics – so happy to see you here. I’m a fan.’ History, linguistics, biogenetics, musicology, math, literature, chemistry, economics, philosophy, political science and on. They acted like they knew me, and they do know my work.”
This development “really means a lot,” says Feldman, also a member of the Academy who “didn’t watch the process, which is confidential. … It means that she’s gotten this very broad affirmation from a very broad group of people.”
But also an elite group of achievers who presumably have recognized the uniqueness of Barber’s art, the value of her contributions and the distinctiveness of each of her albums.
“You feel that each new adventure she goes on, it’s like a deep dive,” says composer and University of Chicago professor Augusta Read Thomas, who invited Barber to open the Ear Taxi Festival in 2016 at the Harris Theater. In that performance, Barber sang portions of the then-still-evolving “Angels, Birds, and I …” cycle.
“It’s a little bit like she’s on the high dive, and she dives deep into these huge adventures, because she needs to,” adds Thomas.
“And we get to have the benefit of it in such beautiful pieces of art that she makes.”
So “Higher” may be more than just Barber’s latest offering. It could be a foreshadowing of deep dives yet to come.
May 30, 2019
By Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
By Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune
Barber’s Best Recordings
“Modern Cool” (Premonition Records, 1998). Barber showed the emerging power of her songwriting in compositions such as “Touch of Trash” and “Winter” but also ingeniously reimagined familiar fare such as “You and the Night and the Music” and “She’s a Lady.”
“Nightclub” (Blue Note/Premonition Records, 2000). Historic tunes such as “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Autumn Leaves” and “All or Nothing at All” took on new intimacy in a genuinely nocturnal album.
“Verse” (Blue Note/Premonition Records, 2002). Barber stepped way out on a limb with “Verse,” which is built entirely on songs for which she penned music and lyrics. Her writing proved strong enough, by far, to sustain the album.
“Live: A Fortnight in France” (Blue Note Records, 2004). Though recorded live in concert, Barber somehow managed to convey the quiet and sensuousness of sound listeners had come to expect from her.
“Mythologies” (Blue Note Records, 2006). Barber’s most ambitious recording to this date, “Mythologies” spanned genres and epochs, the composer fashioning a song cycle based on Greek mythology, her wordplay more clever and telling than ever.
“The Cole Porter Mix” (Blue Note Records, 2008). Barber stands as a hyperliterate heir to Porter (and Stephen Sondheim), which perhaps helps explain her illuminating, individualistic interpretations of Porter’s work.
“Smash” (Concord Jazz, 2013). Another songwriting showcase, “Smash” featured several melancholic, autobiographical works, as well as a few lighter moments.
“Higher” (ArtistShare, 2019). Barber documents her hauntingly mysterious song cycle “Angels, Birds, and I …,” which shows her writing at its most crystalline and compressed. Her readings of three standards defy expectation.