Old-Fashioned Modernist

Into the Orwellian vortex: Patricia Barber

To the extent that jazz supports next big things at all these days, singer-pianist Patricia Barber is beginning to look like just that. With a wry, warm distance in her vocal delivery and a drowsy saloon-singer elegance onstage, the songwriter's work dovetails well with the recent popularity of sophisto-popsters such like Rufus Wainwright, especially among listeners too old to X and too young to boom. Which means that after two decades of leading jazz bands all over Chicago and ten years of worrying out four albums, Barber may soon find radio programmers plopping her stuff down not just between Sade and Dave Koz, but in the still amorphous post-alternative format currently ruled by Ben Folds.

It's an odd and fortuitous moment for the performer, a bookish student of pop with a master's degree in jazz composition from Northwestern University. Barber proudly calls herself a Modernist while admitting that we're all postmodernists--yes, the conversation went into the thicket. She drops new-music giant Pierre Boulez's name in a composition (albeit scornfully) and once adapted e.e. cummings's "put off your faces, Death: for day is over" to music for a jazz quintet. Her latest album, Modern Cool, is one of the few indie-label jazz discs of recent years to find itself rapidly climbing the Billboard charts, and the work reveals a careful lyrical approach apparently indebted to the imagist poetic style of William Carlos Williams and H.D.

But ask her what she thinks about the modern with a small m--that is, the corporate well in which the art bucket so often resides--and you can hear in her voice the wistful bitterness of an intellectual who has fought hard for success in her up-and-down career. "I think there's a danger in the Orwellian vortex that we're all falling into," she says with no trace of irony, over the phone from her Chicago home. "There are only three outlets for everything now--three for music, three for art, three for publishing. Some of the great independent voices are lost, and when a generation grows up without those choices, we're really in trouble."

Given her skepticism toward the industry, it's fitting to find a photo of Barber in Modern Cool's jewel tray with her hand held up as if to ward off an oncoming train--and doubly ironic that soon she could be riding that train. Though originally put out on Chicago's tiny Premonition Records, the album will be rereleased on Blue Note in August, along with 1994's Café Blue. Not long after that, Barber will record her next CD for the label, a collection of standards from a singer who prides herself on original songwriting.

It's easy to hear what captured Blue Note's ear. Instrumentally, Modern Cool is a straight-ahead piano disc, sparse and moody, that puts the guesting trumpet of ubiquitous session man Dave Douglas to good, lyrical use. True, Barber can come across as chilly and purposefully ponderous. But the restrained sound is her own, and the record is rich enough in atmospherics to satisfy one's inner Daniel Lanois without delving into electronic frippery.

But what's more interesting than the album's pristine sonics and nervous romanticism is the confluence of trends that have the mix floating mainstream, radio-play or not. Barber is breaking out at a time when a slew of artists sharing a sort of muted eclecticism--from the Latin Playboys to Lucinda Williams--find themselves in the record collections of listeners radio doesn't yet know what to do with. These Letterman Generation CD hoarders seem to like their music honest between quotation marks--they plant their roots next to plastic lawn flamingos. Barber and Wainwright evoke a fantasy past that their listeners couldn't possibly have lived, the same sort of unlocatable nostalgia that has just given Tom Waits his biggest record ever.

No doubt Blue Note is betting on Barber as another Cassandra Wilson--someone who can cross over to AAA radio and the occasional coffee bar. Like Wilson, Barber emits a languid seriousness, and she knows how to use ironic emotionalism to wink a pop song into a jazz context. Her song choices can be willfully perverse, as if one were reading the liner notes of a desperate and out-of-touch Sarah Vaughan album from the late Sixties: Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" on Café, the Tom Jones-identified "She's a Lady" on Modern.


But Barber doesn't play her select covers for camp laughs. She approaches the songs with such impressionistic reserve that her blue-flame readings of the Doors' "Light My Fire" and other cuts come across with the meditative reflection of tone poetry. "My list of standards can be anything from the Twentieth Century," she offers during our interview. Jazz is opening its arms a bit and embracing pop, she insists. "But there has to be a smart quotient in there somewhere for jazz musicians to deal with it. It could be a smart solo over dumb chord changes."

And however poised pop may be to embrace Barber, she's in no great hurry to hop into the lap of mass culture. The singer has turned down previous major-label offers, perhaps because her 1989 debut, an all-star mismatch, was for Polygram's Antilles label. Furthermore, her out-of-the-closetness may get in the way of the sort of male geek fantasies jazz chanteuses normally profit from (although Ms. Wilson does get by with her little mustache). The singer still keeps her cozy weekly gig at Chicago's Green Mill Jazz Club, home to the somewhat pioneering, if annoyingly mannered, singer Kurt Elling, also on Blue Note. Chicago is such a comfortably tourist-fed jazz bedrock that it's a wonder any musician ever leaves town.

Indeed, Barber doesn't think much of the New York scene, a point that noticeably animates her: "They think they're the cutting edge," she says, "but I think they're just part of the herd. Because of the low economic viability there, the artists aren't really creating out of an inherent need to find a voice. They're creating out of a need to survive. In Chicago, I live five minutes away from the Green Mill and the cover charge to see us tonight is $2. Yet I own my house. I have a beautiful yard."

One must ask, then: Why make the leap to major-label status? The need to increase one's audience just because one can is precisely the soul-emptying urge behind small-m modern sensibility. What's wrong with bringing the mountain to Mohammed? Barber is adamant that her records will remain under her control. "It's a distribution deal. They don't decide what I do. And boy, did we do it our way. They came on to our thing. There's no pressure." I hope she's right.


Patricia Barber will perform Monday and Tuesday, June 22 and 23 at the Dakota Bar & Grill, Bandana Square, 1021 E. Bandana Blvd., St. Paul; (651) 642-1442.

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