Cutting it close

Patricia Barber broke out of her comfort zone and landed a recording deal at an age when most jazz artists put out album number four or five.

March 1, 2010 22:22
4 minute read.
Patricia Barber.

Patricia Barber music 311. (photo credit: Chris Strong)


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Patricia Barber is a classic example of the wisdom of perseverance and integrity. Now 54 years old, the jazz pianist-vocalist is doing very well for herself. Barber, who will be here later this week with her quartet to play gigs in Herzliya and Tel Aviv, headlines at jazz festivals around the world and, when she prefers not to stray too far from her home base, also has a snug and popular regular berth at the Green Mill club in her hometown of Chicago.

But it wasn’t always like that. “I despaired a little bit at the start, although for a while I was making good money in Chicago and the world seemed a bit like a playground,” says Barber. However, that comfort zone was something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand it meant she could keep body and soul together, but back then she hardly ventured out of the Windy City to get some on-the-road experience and feed off energies and musical vibes from other parts of the world, including New York, the epicenter of the jazz universe. “I didn’t feel the need to go to New York,” Barber declares. “I was confident of making it in Chicago. Maybe that wasn’t good thinking at the time, I don’t know, but I did all right in the end.”

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She certainly has and, to borrow a phrase normally associated with one of the greatest crooners of all time, she has done it her way. Although she now has nine CDs under her belt the first didn’t come out until she was 34, a relatively venerable age for a debut album by any standards. “I don’t know why that is,” muses Barber. “It just took that long because that was the way to go for me. I felt I needed to work on my craft. Maybe I wasn’t too ambitious.” Then again, maybe it was also down to that comfort zone. “Every young jazz artist, from Miles [Davis] on, wanted to get their first record out pretty soon. But I was having a great time, playing mostly in Chicago, making good money, Life was full.”

BUT RECORD companies were not exactly lining up outside her apartment eagerly seeking her signature on a recording contract. Typically, when that eventually happened it was with a company that allowed her to stick to her artistic credo. “No one was writing original jazz music back then,” Barber recalls. “I could have gone with other record companies, like [French-based] Dreyfus, but they all wanted me to do standards. I wanted to record my own material. I could have made more money but I have never compromised artistically – that’s not my way.”

Today, Barber manages to combine both of those artistic lines of attack, and she has progressed to the front row of the recording establishment, moving from the small Premonition label to Blue Note while maintaining complete artistic freedom. Her forthcoming concerts here will be partly based on her The Cole Porter Mix CD, released in 2008. Most of the tracks are Porter numbers, and there are three Barber originals in there too. Intriguingly, Barber decided to season much of the Porter material with Latin styles. “Some are straight versions and some are more Latin,” says Barber. “I tried to make it fun. Cole Porter was a partying guy. He mostly had a good life; he came from a wealthy family and became even wealthier when his musicals were a success. It was only later, when he divorced and fell of a horse and was badly injured that he started suffering. I think he would have approved of what I did with his songs.”

FOR SOME years now Barber has taken a wide range of material and used it for her own jazzy intent. Beatles songs and other pop material have found their way into her capable playing and arranging hands, as has cabaret music. “I feed off all music, all good music. I’ve been having fun with songs by [soul artists] Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. It’s always a challenge to give that kind of material to jazz musicians and to see how it fits into the genre.”

The jazz musicians she is bringing here certainly demonstrate an ability to weave new sensibilities into older material. Mind you, it helps when you’ve been making sweet music together for some time, and have developed an almost telepathic understanding. Barber’s band includes guitarist Neal Alger, drummer Eric Montzka and bassist Michael Arnopol. “Mike and I have known each other since we were kids, and we’ve been playing together for 30 years. It certainly helps to feel comfortable with your musicians.”

The Patricia Barber quartet will perform four concerts, two at the Zappa Club in Herzliya on March 5 and two at the Tel Aviv Zappa on March 6 (doors open at 6:45 p.m. and 9:45 a.m., shows start at 8 p.m. and 10:45 p.m.).

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