Patricia Barber: A reluctant star

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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)

"For two straight weeks I didn't sleep," she says. "You know how dangerous that is. Anger is, I found, one emotion that will keep you up. …

"Now," adds Barber, speaking from the distance of some years, "it's just money. It's not breast cancer. So I let it go."

Well, not totally, in that Barber clearly has transformed her rage and hurt into art, to searing effect. No one has witnessed this process more closely than Martha Feldman, Barber's partner and a musically sophisticated observer.

"This album deals with some very deep human issues of life and death," says Feldman, a professor of music and the humanities at the University of Chicago. "She's had a lot of time to drill very deeply down. …

"She lost a lot of people in a very short period of time. She changed managements a couple of times. …

"There's tremendous intimacy between the music and the words," adds Feldman, who believes that Barber now is singing in what Feldman calls "the space of life."

What's remarkable is that "Smash" was recorded, for Barber famously has spent many chapters of her career walking away from major record deals, major tours, major anything.

When Verve/Polygram courted her in the mid-1990s, for instance, she said "no thanks," instead recording for a Chicago indie, Premonition, that operated out of its owner's kitchen. The album that resulted, "Modern Cool," raced up the Billboard and Gavin charts in the summer of '98, eventually leading to Barber's work with what was then most prestigious label in jazz, Blue Note.

But Barber's relationship with Blue Note ended after the 2008 release of "The Cole Porter Mix," the label going through ownership changes, and Bruce Lundvall, her longtime champion, stepping down as president. That, plus the aforementioned adversities in her life, led Barber to once again shy away from a major-label deal for the past several years.

"I just wanted to step back from the fast lane," says Barber, who also decreased the tempo of her international touring. "I thought I would sort of slow down a bit, enjoy our Michigan property, the organic gardening and swimming.

"I can always live on the down low. … I kind of wanted to do fewer concerts, make more interesting music. I had so much music I wanted to invest in, harmonically and otherwise. … I poured myself into (studying) piano, two piano years. I practiced like crazy."

You can hear it on the album and on this evening at the Green Mill, Barber's right-hand lines so beautifully sculpted and her harmonies so complex that she would be eminently worth hearing if she didn't sing a note.

Even as she sought to dial down her activities, however, another major label came calling. This time, Concord Jazz executive Nick Phillips tried to persuade Barber to record for a firm that most jazz musicians would love to hear from. As usual, Phillips got the gentle brush off.

"Nick called: 'Would you like to work for Concord?'" Barber recalls. "I said: 'I don't think so. I'm still grieving about the relationship with Blue Note and their relationship with the world and my relationship with Bruce.'"

Phillips remembers it a bit differently.

"I never felt like there was any kind of resistance or hurdle," he says. "More of a question was: Could we put together on the business side a deal, and I was dealing with Reggie (Marshall, Barber's manager now) on that.

"With Patricia, it was more on the music."

Both agree, though, that Phillips came to catch a Barber show at Yoshi's, in Oakland, Calif., and "damn if he didn't sound like Bruce," Barber remembers. "He could talk to me musically, about 'Touch of Trash' (a famous Barber original), about harmonics. He was just like a young Bruce Lundvall.

"I said, 'OK, let's go for it.'"

Phillips concedes that Barber gave him anything but a conventional jazz-vocal recording. Aside from the oft-mysterious lyrics and sometimes brooding message, the album eludes other expectations. Toward the beginning of the opening song, "Code Cool," for instance, Barber and the band stretch out for an extended, otherworldly instrumental sequence that's practically a cut in itself. Clearly not tailored for radio airplay.

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