Patricia Barber: A reluctant star

Chicago singer-songwriter-pianist returns to the fast lane with 'Smash,' a major recording with dark undertones

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Patricia Barber

Jazz pianist-singer Patricia Barber performs at her regular Monday night gig at the Green Mill. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/ Chicago Tribune / January 18, 2013)

At exactly two minutes before show time, Patricia Barber whisks into the Green Mill Jazz Club, says a quick hello to the guys on the bandstand, stretches the joints in her hands, places her iPad inside the grand piano, noodles on the keyboard for a minute, tosses off a couple vocal scales and plunges into her set.

No small talk. No schmoozing up the crowd. No announcing song titles or musicians' names or anything — except music.

You don't get the sense that Barber necessarily wants to be here — until the set heats up and she sounds as if she doesn't want to be anywhere else.

"I always have the same feeling about it; I hate it before I do it," says Barber, a Chicagoan who will be doing a lot of "it" in coming months, for on Tuesday she releases her first major-label recording in five years, "Smash" (Concord Jazz). She'll soon be traveling the world to promote the album, kicking off the tour with a special engagement Friday and Saturday nights at the Green Mill, where she's typically in residence Monday evenings.

The album, a brilliant collection of original songs, all dispatched with Barber's famously voluptuous voice and steeped in her atmospheric instrumental settings, marks a major step forward for one of the most significant jazz artists to come out of Chicago in the past two decades or more. These songs, often ambiguous in meaning but extremely seductive in tone, crystallize the high craft of Barber's writing while inspiring unorthodox arrangements and often wizardly solo pianism.

Yet, on this night, Barber plays but one tune from "Smash" during her opening set, telling the crowd neither its title nor the forthcoming major release it comes from.

Like Glenn Gould in classical music, Barber, who's in constant demand in clubs, concert halls and festivals around the planet, still seems ambivalent about everything surrounding the art of music (except, of course, for the music itself). Performing, touring, promoting, negotiating — they all seem like distractions that happen to be required to reach a public that routinely places Barber's albums high atop the jazz charts.

Getting on stage, says Barber, "is like getting into a Batwoman suit, pulling on clothes that are very tight.

"And once I'm in 'em, once I'm there, once I start, it gets easier and easier. I can start to chat, sometimes, explain who the musicians are, a little bit about the music, 40 minutes in.

"Then I've lost enough of the nerves."

Whatever trepidation Barber feels when she typically sits before an audience, however, will be heightened dramatically because of "Smash," an album that carries an unmistakable note of sorrow. Though it includes a few lighthearted tunes, as most Barber albums do, the darker pieces come from a very autobiographical place.

In the title song, "Smash," Barber takes the measure of deep personal loss. In "Scream," she chronicles a host of troubles, some of which many of us will experience sooner or later. In "Missing," she somehow traces, in extraordinarily succinct verses, many seasons of longing.

Lest any of this sound self-indulgent, be assured that these songs, years in the making, reflect a painful recent period in Barber's life, hence the central emotion that underlies the album: melancholy.

"Yeah, I would have to agree with that," says Barber. "I hate to admit that a lot of times. … I didn't write it (the album) for that reason.

"It started as a syllabic song series," adds Barber, meaning she sought to challenge herself by trying to pen lyrics that used particular numbers of syllables per line.

Along the way, however, "Five main people in my life died within a very short period. That just happened, and I was writing this music."

Among Barber's losses: her mother, Margaret Orton, who died in 2009 at age 90.

Beyond this tremendous toll, however, there was another source of anguish as well.

"After 2006, we went from European capital to European capital, and every show except Rotterdam was completely sold out," says Barber.

Unfortunately, she adds, a financial dispute with a business associate cost her deeply.

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