Chicago based, vocalist-songwriter-pianist Patricia Barber has earned a reputation as a fiercely independent artist who has paid enough dues to creatively call the shots on the kind of albums she wants to make. Thus far, her recording intuition has been impeccable, winning over local fans as well as establishing her a strong support base internationally. After releasing CDs that combined her uncanny ability to stake new claims on contemporary pop tunes with her prowess for composing witty and gorgeous tunes of her own, Barber recorded Nightclub, an album that took some of her fans by surprise. The disc was full of tried-and-true jazz standards, albeit fashioned in her own singular vision. Her Blue Note/Premonition Records follow-up couldn't be more different. Consistent with her knack for avoiding the pitfalls of sameness, Barber's new album, Verse, is her first recording of all original material, and notably marks the first all-original vocal release in Blue Note history.
"Verse is about songwriting," says Barber who once again serves as her own producer, "and about trying to create new material within both a narrow and broad construction of what vocal jazz is now. I have been diligent about trying to learn from, absorb, and acknowledge the great American songwriters whose songs have been appropriated as repertoire by the jazz masters. And yet, we are all a product of our time, and there are definite aspects of alternative pop music and contemporary classical music on this recording as well. On this CD there is respectful homage to Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Mose Allison, Rogers and Hart, Joni Mitchell, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sting
and many more."
The sophisticated and playful Verse spotlights Barber singing new compositions she's written over the past three to four years. Band mates on the session include trumpeter Dave Douglas and drummer Joey Baron as well as her touring group of guitarist Neal Alger, bassist Michael Arnopol and drummer Eric Montzka. In addition, Cliff Colnot, who is Resident Conductor for the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, conducts a group of Chicago Symphony Orchestra string players in his darkly distinctive arrangement
of Barber's "Clues."
The songs on Verse range from the haunting to the sexy with measures of whimsy, edginess and romance. The mood shifts from the wry humor of the upbeat and inquisitive "Lost in This Love," to the pure sadness of "The Fire" to the hushed beauty of "If I Were Blue." The songs feature Barber's smart wordsmithery, from the Mose Allison-like wit in "You Gotta Go Home" to the logic-and-philosophy intro to "I Could Eat Your Words." The lyrics are informed by personal experiences as well as a rich imagination inspired by poetry, cookbooks, Greek mythology
Musically, Verse places more emphasis on Douglas' trumpeting brilliance and Alger's rich palette of guitar sounds than on Barber's own impressive pianism, which is only spotlighted on a couple of numbers. "The producer in me deliberately made this decision and the pianist in me regretted it." she explains. "I worked with Dave on my album modern cool. He's so special. In my opinion, he is the best jazz trumpeter on the planet and I wrote many of these tunes with him in mind. So, this is a sequel of sorts to modern cool. Also, the way I was hearing the songs in my head had more to do with the guitar than the piano. In a loose way, Verse is a Patricia Barber homage
to Joni Mitchell."
Barber singles out the importance of Alger, a superb Chicago guitarist with whom she had never worked with before in the studio. "We spent a lot of time together before we recorded," Barber says. "He's a great natural acoustic guitar player, but he also has a Strat. At a rehearsal, we came up with 140 sounds out of that guitar. Neal could execute everything I was hearing in my head but also maintain and fiercely assert his own identity. He knows I want dissonance in the music but he plays it in a way that's meaningful to the song."
As for bringing in drummer Joey Baron, Barber says that that idea came from engineer Jim Anderson and Premonition's Mike Friedman. It proved to be a good call. "Joey has played with everyone from Laurie Anderson to straight-ahead bebop guys. He's so cool and he has such a distinctive sound. Plus, he has a bass drum the
size of Cleveland."
Barber has been in the vanguard of the new school of female jazz vocalists who in the past decade have been exploring intriguing improvisational terrain beyond classic balladry and bop-infused standards. She was born in a suburb of Chicago to a saxophone-playing father, Floyd "Shim" Barber, who had played with Glenn Miller. After studying classical piano and psychology at the University of Iowa, Barber moved back to Chicago to play jazz and in 1984 landed the gig that launched her career, playing five nights a week at the famed Gold Star Sardine Bar. Before long there were lines outside the door on weekends. Her following grew larger and more fanatical when, in 1994, she moved her base of operations to the Green Mill, the north side club that is the nerve center of the indigenous Chicago jazz scene.
Barber has recorded seven albums, including two previous full-length CDs for Blue Note/Premonition, modern cool (1998) and Nightclub (2000), and the Blue Note/Premonition six-track EP Companion (1999). Her major label debut was A Distortion Of Love, on Antilles, in 1992. But for most of her current audience, it all began with cafe blue, on Premonition (later Blue Note/Premonition), in 1994. It hit like something inexplicable, introducing a voice one critic described as "a pure dark whisper straight up from the soul" and a distinct onstage persona that has been characterized as "a beat musician and a bop intellectual." caf? blue led to Barber winning the "Female Vocalist/Talent Deserving Wider Recognition" category in the 1995 Down Beat International Critics Poll (an honor that she has since consistently claimed).
In discussing her creative process in writing songs for Verse, Barber says that she doesn't compose with formulas. "Sometimes I start with a melodic or rhythmic hook, or maybe a harmonic progression. Sometimes I just let my emotions dictate the course." She also points out that she tries to steer clear of cliche. For example, in regards to her hushed ballad "If I Were Blue," she took a different approach on a universal theme. "Everyone's written a song about being blue," she explains. "And while there is a sense of melancholy in this tune, it's also about literally being the color blue." She sings "Dive into me and glide" and references such painters as Goya,
Hopper and Picasso.
Barber faced a similar dilemma with her song "The Moon," which opens with an avant-leaning spoken word section and a compelling chaotic guitar-trumpet interchange. "I had had a working idea for a song about the moon for some time, but I was afraid of being redundant. It is, after all, a subject that has been written about for centuries. "says Barber. "To allay that anxiety I did some research. I asked my academic friends to send me less well-known literature on the moon and I read and reread Shakespeare and Greek mythology." She notes, "I'm particularly proud of this one. There are a lot of hidden and double meanings in it."
Verse opens with the catchy, upbeat number "Lost in This Love," a cleverly written song of questions that Barber says was built from a personal feeling of being lost. The mysterious "Clues" follows. "That song is scary," says Barber. "It's about intuiting that something is wrong, but not quite understanding why." She enlisted Cliff Colnot to compose "ominous peaceful" string parts in the two-bar empty spaces in the number. "Regular Pleasures," one of the songs Barber tried out for size on her Nightclub tour, is in a quirky laid-back 5/4. "It's about my life being too exciting. You know, I shouldn't whine about going to Paris and Prague. But I'm more into following a simple neighborhood routine every day and loving my friends and family." She laughs.
"I do long for retirement."
Barber also offers a couple of songs that are laced with humor. The beat-driven "You Gotta Go Home" is a personal tale of a lover who overstayed her welcome. On it she sings, "A sexy month or two, now I'm stuck with you ... you gotta go home." Inspired by Mose Allison whimsy, the number is a "vendetta song about a French woman I was involved with. It's also a tune where I can acknowledge my debt to Mose's songwriting-how he makes
As for the simply complex 7/4-on-the-offbeat "Pieces," Barber says the song came to her from feeling fragmented after a long tour. "I felt like I was in a million pieces ... homeless. Then I started having these visions of tiny, mock Patricias everywhere, on the wall, behind the TV. Songs should have more than one dimension so I added a lost-romance element to it with the line, 'All the pieces agree the best piece
went with you.'"
Barber also sings the brilliant slow-and-drum-brushed "I Could Eat Your Words" ("a real sexy song about the fantasy of seducing your teacher" combined with cooking imagery that took her six months of cookbook reading to get right), the edgy and discordant "The Fire" (about a woman dissatisfied in a relationship but faking it), the lyrical "Danson La Gigue" (a fond recollection of a love affair with the lyrics by 18th century French poet Paul Verlaine) and the beautiful endsong "If I Were Blue," which closes the album with a verse that Barber says is like a benediction.
When asked what she hopes listeners will take away from the latest addition to her discography, Barber responds, "My fondest dream would be that my songwriting and performance speak effectively to the past, present, and future of the jazz art form that I love. This task is, after all, the task of any artist: to create a ruthlessly individual vision of the art from the inside out. These are not mediocre aspirations, but then why waste your time on those? Something much larger than myself and my effort will determine if
I have been successful at
my artistic mission."
With words, and piano, Patricia Barber brings us her ninth CD: Mythologies, an intelligent album based on: The Metamorphoses of Ovid, the centuries-old classic of Western literature, filled with gods, mortals and apparently, humor. Barber's songwriting has been attracting big attention lately, and for the last two years, she has been recording this eleven song cycle. It was a project that demanded focus and some self-education
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