Born in 1955 near Chicago IL; daughter of Floyd "Shin" Barber (a jazz saxophonist). Education: Degree in classical piano and psychology, University of Iowa; master's degree in jazz pedagogy, Northwestern University. Addresses: Record company--Premonition Records, P.O. Box 477621, Chicago, IL 60647. Website--Patricia Barber Official Website: http://www.patriciabarber.com.
Chicago-based musician Patricia Barber possesses all the qualities of a well-rounded artist: in addition to being an accomplished pianist, she adds new dimensions to jazz standards with her hypnotic, eclectic voice, writes equally memorable original compositions, and explores improvisational music. Moreover, fearing that her work would sound too computerized and processed, she has resisted the temptation to sign more lucrative recording contracts. Instead, she remained with Premonition Records, a label that awarded her complete artistic control. Indeed, her discography--from A Distortion of Love through Verse--is highly regarded by both American and European critics.
Conducting her career in her adopted hometown of Chicago, rather than fighting the music-industry scenes in New York or Los Angeles, allows her, she says, to concentrate on her music rather than on fitting in. Barber still plays regularly at her unofficial headquarters, the Green Mill--a small but chic downtown nightclub. "In places like New York and L.A., you start second-guessing yourself too soon," she told Lloyd Sachs in a Los Angeles Times interview. "You ask yourself, am I hip enough to be here? Is this what's gonna get me attention? In Chicago, you don't have that. The music develops in rather an unfettered way."
Barber is also one of the few openly gay women in jazz music (her partner, musicologist Martha Feldman, is an associate professor at the University of Chicago). According to Barber, her sexual orientation did not prevent her from gaining the respect and admiration of the jazz world. "I have problems with women's groups and gay groups for saying this, but I have never personally felt discriminated against, either for being a woman or being gay," she said in a 2002 New York Times interview with Terry Teachout. "Sometimes that's not a popular thing to say, but in my case it's the truth."
Barber was born in 1955 in a Chicago suburb. Her father, Floyd "Shin" Barber, also a musician, played saxophone with the likes of Glenn Miller, but later took a job as a pharmacist to better support his family. Unfortunately, he died when Barber was only nine. Against her mother's wishes, Barber pursued a musical career to live out her father's dreams. "Jazz is such a difficult lifestyle--the late nights, the smoke, the insecurity, the lack of health insurance--and I wanted to be a nice middle-class girl," she told Teachout. "My father was a musician, and he died an alcoholic, and my mother was afraid that something bad would happen to me, too. I was going to go to law school, medical school, anything other than music, and finally I called my mother during my senior year in college and said: 'Mom, I'm going to be a jazz musician. I can't help it.' And she cried. She cried. She was just afraid. And so was I. It's only been very, very recently that I haven't almost hated what I was doing."
Returning to Chicago after earning a degree in both classical piano and psychology from the University of Iowa (she later completed her master's degree in jazz pedagogy at Northwestern University), Barber focused completely on music. In 1984 she started performing regular gigs at Chicago's Gold Star Sardine Bar, in spite of her self-professed stage fright, and quickly picked up fans. Her debut album entitled Split, both self-produced and self-released, appeared a few years later in 1989. That same year she played her first North Sea Jazz Festival in Europe and has been a participant ever since.
Barber's unique personal style was displayed with the release of her second album, 1992's A Distortion of Love. Recorded with bassist Marc Johnson, drummer Adam Nussbaum, and guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, it featured eclectic versions of "Summertime," "You Stepped Out of a Dream," and the Smokey Robinson number "My Girl," as well as avant-garde instrumental pieces. The record won favorable reviews from critics and attracted the attention of major record labels. Barber ultimately picked Premonition Records, forgoing the biggest offers to maintain control of her work.
She debuted on Premonition in 1994 with Café Blue, backed by Michael Arnopol on bass, John McLean on guitar, and Mark Walker on drums and percussion. The album contained both standards and original compositions, including "Mourning Grace," whose lyrics were borrowed from the poetry of Maya Angelou, and "Wood Is a Pleasant Thing to Think About," inspired by the words of Virginia Woolf. It, too, proved a critical favorite.
Barber returned with Modern Cool in 1998, joined by the same band from Café Blue, with the addition of trumpeter Dave Douglas. She again featured both originals and unexpected covers, such as Paul Anka's "She's a Lady" (Tom Jones's hit), and the Doors' "Light My Fire." Notable originals include the love song "Silent Partner," and "Company," a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the trendiness of modern society. In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Bill Kohlhaase called Barber, "the coolest singer-songwriter around, easily outdistancing such lounge-scene hipsters as Holly Cole, in both taste and intelligence."
Barber's fifth album, Companion, was released in late 1999 as a "companion" to her previous album. A live recording made earlier in the year at Barber's home base, the Green Mill in Chicago, with Barber on vocals, piano, and organ, her backing band consisted of McLean, Arnopol, drummer/percussionist Eric Montzka, percussionist Ruben P. Alvarez, and vocalist Jason Narducy. Standouts from this album include Sonny Bono's "The Beat Goes On," Bill Wither's "Use Me," and Carlos Santana's "Black Magic Woman." Nightclub, an album of standards recorded with guitarist Charlie Hunter, drummer Adam Cruz, and bassist Marc Johnson, appeared the following year.
In 2002 Barber released Verse, recorded with Douglas, guitarist Neal Alger, and bassist Cliff Colnot. The album represents her first set of all-original material. "Verse is about songwriting," she noted in her official website, "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, and 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."
With Verse Barber pays tribute to a range of influential songwriters, among them Cole Porter (one of her most significant inspirations), George Gershwin, Mose Allison, Rogers and Hart, Joni Mitchell, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Sting. Critics unanimously agreed that the album displayed her considerable range. She shows her humorous side on tracks such as "You Gotta Go Home" and "I Could Eat Your Words," examines love and romance with "Regular Pleasures," and borrows lyrics from French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine on "Dansons la gigue."
by Laura Hightower
Patricia Barber's Career
Began playing professionally, 1984; self-produced and self-released debut album, Split, 1989; released A Distortion of Love, 1992; signed with Premonition Records, released Café Blue, 1994; Modern Cool, 1998; Companion, a live album recorded at the Green Mill, 1999; Nightclub, 2000; released all-original album Verse, 2002.
- Selected discography
- Split , Floyd, 1989.
- A Distortion of Love , Antilles, 1992.
- Café Blue , Premonition, 1994.
- Modern Cool , Premonition, 1998.
- Companion , Premonition, 1999.
- Nightclub , Premonition, 2000.
- Verse , Premonition, 2002.
- Swenson, John, editor, Rolling Stone Jazz & Blues Album Guide, Random House, 1999.
- Billboard, June 20, 1998; September 16, 2000.
- Boston Globe, February 20, 1999; September 29, 2000; October 6, 2000; March 8, 2001.
- Chicago Tribune, August 27, 2002; August 31, 2002.
- Dallas Morning News, September 28, 2001.
- Down Beat, December 1994; September 1998; January 1999; February 2000; January 2001; May 2001.
- Jazz Review, September 2002.
- Los Angeles Times, December 17, 1994; January 1, 1995; July 5, 1998; November 13, 1998; August 15, 1999; January 17, 2000; June 6, 2001; August 25, 2002.
- New York Times, February 12, 1999; February 13, 1999; October 16, 2000; June 23, 2002.
- Time, October 30, 2002.
- Washington Post, February 12, 1999; February 17, 1999; May 13, 2002; August 28, 2002.
- All About Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com (September 9, 2002).
- Patricia Barber Official Website, http://www.patriciabarber.com (September 9, 2002).