Jazz Institute of Chicago

A Conversation with Patricia Barber

Patricia Barber interviewed by Janet Seiz

If we strip musicians’ life stories to their bare essentials, there aren’t that many basic narratives in the history of jazz. Most include elements of tragedy. “Brilliance recognized early, but life cut short.” “Originality sacrificed for popularity.” “Toiled in obscurity, appreciated only when gone.” Patricia Barber’s story, in contrast, is one from which artists of all kinds can take courage. Call it “Pursued unique vision until audience at last ready.”

She’s spent two decades honing her performing and composing skills in Chicago, developing a strong following in long-term engagements at several of the city’s jazz clubs (most recently the Green Mill). Her first three recordings—“Split” (1989), “A Distortion of Love” (1992) and “Cafe Blue” (1994—received growing critical acclaim and airplay, but had limited distribution, and so Barber remained “independently poor.”
Repeatedly refusing offers from major labels whose visions of her work were too narrow, she opted to stay with Premonition, a small Chicago label, and she did relatively little touring. Her breakthrough to a mass audience came at last in 1998 with “modern cool.” That album’s critical accolades and runaway sales led to the signing of a remarkable contract the next year: Blue Note took over the distribution of Barber’s CDs, while she retained her complete artistic autonomy at Premonition.

She toured extensively in and outside the U. S. in 1998 and 1999, frequently playing to sold-out houses. Her first recording for the Blue Note/Premonition imprint, the live “Companion” EP (Oct. 1999), reached the top of the jazz airplay charts. But while Barber’s recent rise to fame has certainly been meteoric, hers is far from being a story of “overnight success.”(For biographical details and discographies, see www. premonitionandmusic. com and www. patriciabarber. com. )

This interview was conducted via e-mail between October 1999 (early in the “Companion” tour) and February 2000. It originally appeared on www. jazzreview. com.

Over the years you've had to contend with a lot of people who thought your music was too sophisticated or too eclectic to ever find a very large audience. And several times you turned down financially attractive recording deals because they would have confined your creativity. What's enabled you to stay true to your own vision despite all the pressures that might have lured you onto other paths? Has it been a struggle, or were you just born with extraordinary strength of character?

The struggle is the character. They say to be careful what you choose because you may become that. Well, in my case, that has been true, because this has not been an entirely noble nor linear voyage. First, let me say that pursuing an art is a great reward in and of itself, so in the scheme of things it's not a difficult choice to make every single day. In my career, I've almost fallen off the wagon a few times, and strangely enough, the universe wouldn't let me fall.

When I wanted a teaching job, I couldn't get one, even though I was academically and professionally more qualified than many of the people holding positions. Just as I got a lucrative offer to write music for second-rate films, I became ill with a serious asthma episode and had to give up the job to lie on the couch and recuperate for three months. After a nervous breakdown, I became so ambivalent and nervous about performing that I told Dave Jemilo, the owner of the Green Mill in Chicago (where I still perform weekly) that I wasn't sure if I could start a set, finish a set, or sing a single note without crying. He told me he would pay me either way, so I went onstage with nothing to lose. And I needed the money.

The few times I did become discouraged and tried raising a white flag, nobody would acknowledge my surrender. I had no choice but to continue supporting myself the only way I could, which was to develop myself in this music and perform it. If it is true now that I have strength of character, it would be an interesting exercise to try to pinpoint where I may have picked it up along the way.

In the early 1980s, as you’ve described yourself, you were a pretty good singer who still had a lot to learn about jazz piano. Now you’re very accomplished as a vocalist, pianist, composer, lyricist, and arranger. How hard-won was all that growth?

There isn't a secret formula to artistic growth. I practiced, practiced, and practiced. At one point, on my 30th birthday, I realized with a tiny horror that since graduating from college, I hadn't seen much of the world other than Chicago. There was a growing realization that I had been sacrificing knowledge and experience in other areas in order to focus so specifically on jazz and the library of jazz—although I do believe it was a necessary sacrifice. Starting then at 30, I decided I needed to broaden my experiences, take on a self-directed study plan of certain subjects, travel extensively every year, and generally try to learn the art of living as separate but integral to the art of music.

Are there moments in your development that you remember as particularly gratifying?

There are moments constantly that are gratifying. One goes through longish periods of what feels like stultifying plateaus and then something happens as the result of practice and it is gratifying. Music works that way. Often this moment, the audible result of one's work, is a sum greater than its parts. . . as if there is another party adding input and bringing the music to a level even you as the musician couldn't have imagined.

You’ve said the singers and songwriters you most admire include Elis Regina, Leny Andrade, Sheila Jordan, Shirley Horn, Joni Mitchell, and Cole Porter. Which instrumentalists have been especially important to you as inspirations or influences?

Bill Evans, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chick Corea.

Could you say a little about your affinity with Bill Evans? Many people hear some kinship between your playing and his.

It would be impossible not to hear some Bill Evans in any jazz pianist's playing. He was an enormous influence in jazz piano. The same applies to Keith Jarrett these days. These major figures forge new pathways. It then becomes impossible for any jazz pianist not to take those pathways while then trying to find something new from that point on. This is the nature of art. One must accept and ingest accepted forms before trying to individually influence the art from the inside out.

What did Bill Evans bring to jazz piano?

Lyricism. He gave the piano its own voice within jazz. He used the strengths of the instrument, for instance, the ability to play several notes at one time, to bring rich harmony and texture to the jazz aesthetic. He softened the entire aesthetic within jazz by combining a silky technique with bebop lines. Before Bill Evans, pianists were more or less imitating the horn players. They played hard angular lines without using lush chordal harmonies.

I'm intrigued by your inclusion of Coltrane. What is it in his work that you connect with so strongly?

John Coltrane epitomizes musical commitment. He had it all. He brought the music to new places intellectually and harmonically and he played on the most extreme edge of emotional commitment.

One way you’ve challenged yourself is by working in a variety of formats. Can you talk a bit about the freedoms and constraints you experience with different combos? Where can you go, for example, in your duo-with-bass, and what kinds of expression do you prefer for your quartet?

Every member that you add to a group adds some weight to the vehicle. Weight can be a wonderful thing if thought of in terms of substance, and it can also be a cumbersome thing as it restricts some movement. The duo is a very loose and expressive format. It is also more frightening for me because I am more exposed; my emotions are exposed, I have no place to hide and rest from scrutiny. It seems to create an intimacy with the audience because of that sense of being so close to the heart or emotion of the music. With a drummer and guitarist, the solos can be spectacular and so the show can be more exciting in terms of rhythm and timbre and the thrill of great jazz instrumental soloists.

Charlie Haden said in a recent interview, “What it's really about is achieving a level in the rest of your life that you reach when you're playing. . . . You have to develop your character to the level that you achieve when you're touching music.” What do you think of that?

There is a level of engagement—physical, intellectual, and emotional—that one achieves when playing music that is very satisfying. Also the concentration is heightened and the right brain is functioning at its utmost, which can allow one to think clearly and deliver one's best work. I differ, however, with Charlie Haden in that I would not want to be this engaged for most of my life. It's too intense.

It is so intense that sometimes the difference between this state and “normal life” can be a shock or a letdown, which is why I believe so many musicians are alcoholics and drug addicts. This is part of the reason I don't like to perform too many nights in a row. My life starts to fade and disappear because the rhythm and satisfactions of life are more subtle and can be lost within the prolonged intensity of musical performance.

Your “to thine own self be true” philosophy has always yielded great artistic rewards, and now it's yielding commercial ones as well. Blue Note has agreed to market and distribute your recordings while leaving you with full artistic control at Premonition. How did that contract come about?

I'm not privy to or interested in all the inside information, but when the billion-page contract was done, I had the legal right to look it over and approve or disapprove it. I think the world of Bruce Lundvall, the president of Blue Note Records. Besides the obvious distribution muscle that Premonition now has for my CDs, associating with and learning from him has been one of the best parts of this corporate liaison for me.

You've also been touring like mad. What are your hopes, as your career enters this new phase? And do you see dangers in “success” from which you'll need to protect yourself?

I send out a series of writings from the road to all my friends and family. This is from the latest and might answer your question. Sorry, my heart is just not in another answer because there isn't one. Not from here.

It’s hard to believe one musician can whine so much, but I broke down again today. Don't be surprised if I become a bit of a reclusive internet artist. . . . I'm not sure at all that the road is for me. I had no idea there was such emptiness out in the world. It’s one obstacle hurdled after another while running nowhere. The music makes sense. . . and the audiences make sense. But nothing else does, and I'm not sure this isn't too high a price to pay.

You’ve built a nice community of friends and fans at the Green Mill and had a safe home for your musical experimentation. Will you keep playing there regularly, now that there's so much demand for you from larger and far-away venues?

Yes.

What are the processes of composing and lyric-writing like for you? What sort of routine do you have, and what's the experience like emotionally?

My lifestyle when taking time to write music is wonderful. I get up, make coffee and sit around, listen to music, do a lot of daydreaming and some tinkling on the piano. Then I walk my dog and come back and daydream some more. Most days I go to the gym, perhaps do grocery shopping, then maybe I schedule dinner with friends or stay at home with friends and sit around some more. I go to as many great concerts and listen to as much music as I can. The lifestyle is a charmed one, but I find the writing itself is a kind of emotional torture. I think that’s all I’ll say on the subject.

There’s irony in a lot of the lyrics you write. Mose Allison once told an interviewer, “I don’t have to search for irony—irony follows me everywhere.” Do you feel something like that?

Irony is a form of distancing, a way to inject sophistication into the landscape. Humor or irony can be used as a way to make a point without being dully direct or a self-righteous bore. Cole Porter is the highest role model in this respect. He made many culturally salient points, but always phrased them with intelligence and wit. The great American songs that became the standard repertoire of jazz and cabaret are constructed with a high level of sophistication. Even if a songwriter is not looking to be particularly witty, the form as it has been established demands a certain twist of lyric or perspective or poetry.

Several of your compositions work with classical and sacred music forms, including “Love, Put on Your Faces,” for which you adapted a poem by e. e. cummings. Will you continue to use others’ poetry in your music? And do you expect classical forms to continue to be important to your composing?

I do expect that classical music and its forms will continue to play a role in my songwriting. They present a great challenge musically that I look forward to from time to time. The only problem with using either musical or lyrical forms penned by other artists is that it is very, very difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to get permission from poets/composers and/or their estates. One has to have a lot of time on hand to tackle the process, although when permission finally arrives, it can be thrilling. I waited months to get an answer back from Maya Angelou about whether or not I could record "Mourning Grace. " When I received a "yes," I was walking on air.

Your social commentary originals on “modern cool” (“A Touch of Trash,” “Company,” and “Postmodern Blues”) are so hip and so wittily-crafted, the listener can’t help but smile—but their critiques of (our) consumerism and conformism are actually quite devastating. I don't suppose you'd like to be the Woody Guthrie as well as the Cole Porter of our postmodern moment— but how would you characterize your politics and their place in your work?

Of course my ideal would be a songwriter like Cole Porter. He spoke well to his time, but did it in the most artistic way. There are a few obvious differences between me and Cole Porter; one of the most glaring differences is that he was prolific and I still have only a small self-composed repertoire. In order to be an artist of any lasting merit, one must not only have the goods, but have plenty of goods, so I'm working on that part now. I must be more prolific.

I think your songs have a lot in common with Porter's: memorable melodies, very sophisticated lyrics, lots of psychological insight, and a wonderful sense of humor. Are some of the differences you see due to the fact that you're writing in/for different times?

I am flattered by the comparison. Certainly the times are different and so is the musical landscape. . . . Most artists are arrogant enough to shoot for the stars. Cole Porter is the stars. I'm here on earth looking up.

You've said you'd like to see yourself “as an integral bridge that helps take jazz from the 20th century to the 21st century.” Could you elaborate? What kind of influence would you like your work to have?

It’s hard sometimes to be called to task for such off-the-cuff statements. They say, “why bother with mediocre aspirations?” So I guess that statement would reflect my lofty goals. An artist should ideally absorb the history and form of his/her chosen art and then create true innovation by forging a new and independent voice. I would love to be that innovator. . . .

I'm not sure one could identify how exactly one is hoping to make an impact. Certainly as composer I would like to contribute to the jazz vocal repertoire; I would be very proud and happy one day if singers were performing some of my songs regularly. Also, I find inspiration in artists like Dave Douglas, the trumpeter, who has ruthlessly defined himself as being firmly entrenched within the traditional jazz repertoire but is also aggressively stretching the boundaries to create innovation. As a singer/composer I am attempting to do the same kind of thing. For the future of jazz, this artistic process of paying homage to the past, but looking forward, may be important.

I understand you have two more CDs planned. What can you say about what they'll be like and when you'll record them?

The first one will be standards-based. That is scheduled for recording the third week of May [2000]. The second one will be another recording based on mostly new material. I don't know exactly yet when that will be recorded.

Do you have ideas about where you'd like to be as an artist five years from now? How about ten?

Five years from now, I would like to have several respected recordings under my belt. I have done five recordings to date, so another three to five would be good. I would love to basically continue to do what I'm doing now, but travel less.

In ten years, I'd like to have a nice light-schedule teaching job, perform less, compose more, grow organic vegetables, have lots of dogs, and be one of the best cooks in the midwest. This last aspiration may be unattainable, however.

Copyright ©2000 Janet Seiz

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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