Patricia Barber is an extremely intelligent jazz songwriter who sings and plays piano. She is either beloved or reviled by the people who have heard her records — she inspires strong feelings on either side of the divide. I’m reasonably sure that that says more about the listener than about Patricia Barber’s music itself, but I can understand people who think her music is pretentious and overblown and, occasionally, boring. I don’t agree, but I can understand. It’s all about how you view pretention.
I don’t think being pretentious is a bad thing. I think there is bad-pretentious and good-pretentious, just like there’s good-soulful and bad-soulful, good-pop and bad-pop, good-crunk and bad-crunk, and so on. If you dismiss anyone who tries something different out of hand, or if you think the Beatles or U2 were the last good act in the world and that no one else should even try, then you’ll dismiss Patricia Barber. But you’ll do so at your own expense, because she’s relentless in her pursuit of the neu and the bleu.
These four albums, originally on Premonition Records and recently re-released by Koch, are invaluable to people who want to learn more about one of the most elusive and interesting artists working in any musical genre today. They’re also kinda sexy, but we’ll get to that later.
What exactly is the big deal here? Well, it goes a little something like this. The Chicago-based Barber writes challenging songs dealing with consumer culture and postmodernism and romantic/sexual obsession. She invents songs adapted from texts by Maya Angelou, e.e. cummings, Paul Verlaine, and papal encyclicals. She namedrops Calvin Klein and Aristotle and Pierre Boulez in her songs, isn’t afraid of words like “pathology” and “apertif” and “pharmacological” or phrases such as “I can’t find guitars that scream like you” and “supine beneath the soft and gentle season.” Lyrically she is in thrall to beatniks, symbologists, and Gertrude Stein; she has also covered songs by Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong, A.C. Jobim, and Frank Loesser… but also by the Doors, Paul Anka, and Bobbie Gentry.
So, yeah, she’s not exactly your typical jazz singer. And her piano playing is hardly typical either. She can vamp it out, late-night cocktail style — I’ve had the privilege of seeing her a few times at her regular Monday night gig at Chi’s famous Green Mill, and she is devastatingly effective in smoky club mode. Her album Nightclub, released in 2000, is all in this way, suggestively restrained, as reverent as one can be without being snoozeriffic. Her phrasing owes a lot to Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans, but she is maybe a little more ambient than either; the way she stretches out the Otto Harbach/Jerome Kern gem “Yesterdays” out to almost seven minutes, aided only by tumbling drums by Adam Nussbaum and tasteful bass work by Marc Johnson, has touches of Herbie Hancock and Windham Hill in it. The way she does Marcos Valle’s “Summer Samba” is so straight as to be almost twisted.
But, as you might imagine, there is a more avant-garde musical side to Patricia Barber. She’s studied classical composition and world music structures, and her tracks using these tricks are pretty damned interesting. “The Moon”, the first track on 2002’s Verse, is the perfect example of Barber-as-artiste. There is a riot goin’ on in this song over its first minute and a half: Barber is punching out a children’s song on piano and torching it up vocally, referring to Erebus and Illumination, Dave Douglas is spitting out trumpet lines from an entirely different song, Neil Alger is doing some kind of Adrian Belew thing on guitar — all a bunch of beautiful chaos to go along with her lyrics about “what Chaos when the curtain rises and the houselights dim”. But then things settle down into an almost funky/almost reggae groove, it’s a real song after all… until the piano dischords start to muck everything back up a few minutes later. By the ending segment, we’re unsettled again, as we might well be in a song about a strong woman who just can’t shine on her own, content — and discontent — to reflect. Actually, this song might actually be sung BY the moon itself. It’s pretty, it’s ambiguous, it’s pretty ambiguous.
Ambiguity is Barber’s default setting. This is evident even on the first of these records, Café Bleu, first released in 1994. “Mourning Grace” is a pointillist work — Steve Reich and Phillip Glass and all those dudes inform her songwriting as much as the classic Tin Pan Alley people she also loves — based on Maya Angelou’s haunting poem. The refrain “Will you have the grace to mourn for me?” sets the band off into an extended period of exploration, with John McLean’s guitar work alternating between funk-jazz stabs and longer feedbacky lines. When Barber comes back in, singing that line higher and higher until the words disappear and she’s just howling… well, it’s pretty thrilling, but it never goes over the top into rock territory or classical stuff or, really, jazz itself. It just is, and it’s all on purpose.
“Constantinople”, from 1998’s Modern Cool, is the most extreme example. Over a shifting Middle Eastern groove fueled by Mark Walker’s percussion work, Barber keens wordlessly and then gives trumpeter Dave Douglas several beautiful minutes to vamp in Sketches of Spain style; when she comes back in, long vocal lines punctuated by staccato guitar work by John McLean, it’s so haunting and perfect that you forget that she doesn’t actually play piano at all on the track.
To me, Barber is most successful when she’s being pretentious. Nightclub is a good record, and it works well enough as an album; but, as cool as it is to hear her do “Alfie” and “Just for a Thrill” backed by guest hipster Charlie Hunter, it is the most monochrome of her records. It’s the best for, say, seduction, but it lacks the wild invention and WTF-ness of hearing her covers right alongside her weirdo originals. Café Bleu is the most jarring; we go from the bebop original “Yellow Car III” to the bizarre minute-long setting of Stein-text of “Wood Is a Pleasant Thing to Think About” to “Inch Worm” (the only sexy version of this song ever recorded), and then right into a glacial-cool reading of “Ode to Billy Joe”. The all-original Verse is Barber at her loosest. The Suzanne Vega-ish “Lost in This Love” could be a VH1 hit in a more intellectual world, with its lyrics about “Where is the grand in the slam? / Where is the sweet in the bitter? / When did the tap lose the dance? / When did the night lose the good and the gown?” “Pieces” is 7/8 funk with surreal lyrics about needing a structural engineer, and balances the hyper-intense Joni Mitchell folk of “The Fire”. The flamenco-y “If I Were Blue” is straightforward in its slow ruin: “If I were blue / As David Hockney’s pool” and “If I were blue / A pure Picasso blue”.
But I favor Modern Cool the most, because it is the craziest and the most out-there of everything she has ever done. We get the off-kilter slow-burning social critique of “Touch of Trash,” the herky-jerky pop of “Company” and “Postmodern Blues”, and the full-choir adaptation of cummings’ sonnet “put off your faces,Death:for day is over.” This last song, dedicated to Barber’s sister, swells with love and heartfelt grief, and is the key to why this is one of my favorite records — this is the sound of a very private person, who usually hides behind her immense vocabulary and sharp wit and experimental music, laying her emotions bare. Barber also covers, with the original lyrics, both “Light My Fire” and “She’s a Lady”. As far as I can tell, this is the only on-record reference to her being a lesbian. It’s her whole life, wrapped up in a great jazz/pop/blues/gospel/world music/postmodern album.