Patricia Barber: Mythologies

Jazz pianist, vocalist, and writer Patricia Barber plays it too cool on the overly restrained Mythologies.

Patricia Barber


Label: Blue Note
US Release Date: 2006-08-15
UK Release Date: 2006-09-11

In the classic schism, now a half-century old, West coast jazz is kept cool and East coast jazz is bopped hard (the term "Hot Jazz" had already been used by the pre-swing pioneers of the form). Vocalist, writer, and pianist Patricia Barber is a Chicagoan, so she can have her choice, I suppose. And, in one sense, she looks to the West. Barber's so cool, you might catch a chill from listening. On the other hand, her music effuses a restrained sophistication that has nothing at all to do with fish tacos, Hollywood blockbusters, or hippie drum circle jams. Although she hails from Illinois, I find it impossible not to picture Patricia Barber framed within a Manhattan skyline, a martini stemmed between her fingers, pausing for a reflective moment before returning to her coterie of art dealers, philanthropists, physicians, and professors of Greek mythology. Perhaps Barber falls into a chat about careers with a tweedy, silver-haired gent ensconced in a corner with a potted plant. "Jazz musician? Lovely. You know, dear. You should compose an entire album devoted to the legends of ancient Greece. Really quite a lot of fodder for one's songcrafting, I should think."

But that's just the hackneyed movie in my head. I mean to convey atmosphere more so than biography. In reality, Barber has based most of the 11 tracks of Mythologies on characters from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Titles such as "Morpheus" (not the dude from The Matrix), "Pygmalion" (nothing to do with Eliza Doolittle), and "Narcissus" (having everything to do with self-obsession) offer familiar cultural toeholds for us. Best known, probably, is "Icarus", the oft-told (and retold) fable of the man who built for himself a pair of wings and flew, only to fall when he soared too close to the Sun. For sure, Barber is not the first to explore this myth in song. Icarus has plunged again and again, thanks to Iron Maiden ("Flight of Icarus"), the Verlaines ("Icarus Missed"), Ani DiFranco (just plain "Icarus"), and many others. Barber, however, fuses this parable to a profile of Nina Simone, to whom she dedicates the song: "an angel black as the color of her hair / begins to sing and play and dare / to form a perfect design, a boldfaced / attempt to fly". The story has always been about trying to squash those who dare to dream. Barber's take on it, then, is a perfect ode to the fearless Simone. It's also the disc's best and most spirited track, with impassioned performances from her quartet of drummer Eric Montzka (rolling out the waves on his toms), Michael Arnopol on bass, and Neal Alger's guitar (digging into a frenetic groove at the climax of the tune).

Mythologies begins with "The Moon", a track reprised from Barber's last studio album, 2003's excellent Verse. The original was approached more abstractly, with her band adding whipped-up flourishes of guitar and cymbal. The new version, like the new record in general, feels more cerebral and cautious. Beginning almost inaudibly, a drum groove breaks free midway through, with solos from Barber on piano and guest saxophonist Jim Gailloreto. Despite the dynamic shift and the fine improvisations from the performers, the track still feels boxed-in; the overall mood, tentative. The rest of the album does little to change this impression. "Morpheus", on the god of sleep and dreams, is dinner jazz, musically. All dusky and sentimental, the tight ABBA rhyme pattern (not the Swedish pop group) only adds to the triteness of the track. "Pygmalion" makes up little ground, sticking to the same formula. "Hunger" features a sly Latin beat and even slyer lyrics about the bottomlessness of desire: "the closer you come, the more you want me / the more you want, the more you want to be free". Whether about food or a lover, Barber is intentionally ambiguous. It's this sense of whimsy and play, largely absent from Mythologies, that made Verse and earlier works like the live Companion (1999) and Café Blue (1994) so appealing. That frisky sense of fun is all but gone from Mythologies, allowing the cool restraint to dominate. Even on the closing track, "The Hours", when joined by the small gospel choir Choral Thunder, the performance comes across as reined-in. Perhaps Patricia Barber aimed to produce a "mature" release; she takes herself a little too seriously here, however. Sometimes, playing it too cool will only elicit a tepid response. Mythologies, a hit-and-miss, release, is only just fine. I had hoped for more.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.