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)

"Maybe precisely because it's not what's expected, (it) may be a very good thing," says Phillips. "And what your conception of jazz might be, and the boundaries of that — Patricia is not concerned with that."

Most important, the way Barber creates and develops harmony throughout the recording makes "Smash" at once sophisticated and accessible, provocative and attractive. And the way her chord changes reflect the ever-shifting emotional nuances of her lyrics underscores her rising achievements as songwriter.

"She's becoming more and more potent and focused, and the sense of who she is (is) becoming more crystallized and really exceptional," says Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Shulamit Ran, a University of Chicago music professor and Barber devotee.

Add to this the suppleness and sensuousness of Barber's vocals, plus the economy and force of her pianism, and you have an artist of unusual communicative power.

"There are probably just a handful of people that have mastered that symbiosis as well as she has," says noted classical soprano Winifred Faix Brown, with whom Barber took a lesson last month to make sure she was in strong vocal shape for the rigors of the coming tour.

"I think Patricia has evolved. … The sounds she makes with her voice are instrumental, in that they can be (both) melodic and percussive, which is very interesting and very much an extension of real language."

But next comes the tough part — touring again, getting back on the fast lane.

How is Barber, perhaps the most reluctant star in jazz today, feeling about that?

"Excited, anxious and depressed," she says. "When I look at my dogs, Martha, my house — I've always felt that way" about leaving everything behind for the rigors of the road.

"I've always wanted to be a musician, I remember, but I didn't realize as a kid that you had to travel so much. And I never thought I would be more than a Chicago musician. … I didn't know you had to fly all over the world."

That you must, if you hope to begin to satisfy an expanding global audience.

Though still in her 50s, Barber speaks of retirement but, of course, not in the usual terms.

"I think when I make some sort of retirement decision, I think I would travel less. I don't think I would work less. I enjoy developing the music."

And what about the constant tension and release of facing an audience?

"I would love to stop singing, (but) I would miss it, so that's why I don't do it," says Barber, pondering the paradox.

"I love the singing, but it's so much of a heart opener, it's so hard to do. I would love to be (only) a piano player, come in on a gig and play the (devil) out of the piano."

So Barber continues as she has, performing every Monday night at the Green Mill, except when she's on tour. Sometimes, though, when she's onstage, she feels the presence of those she has lost, she says.

"When I'm singing and playing, I'm somewhere between life and death, in a corridor," Barber says.

"When you're in that corridor, you can reach people. 'Smash' definitely so, and 'Romanesque,'" she adds, citing two of the album's most haunting pieces.

"I feel I can almost touch and see them," she adds, before adding a characteristically cryptic thought.

"I can see which way to go."

Patricia Barber marks the release of "Smash" at 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $15; 773-878-5552 or

Twitter @howardreich

The best of Patricia Barber's recordings:
(Concord Jazz, 2013). Intelligent songwriting, sensuous vocals, cunning pianism.
"The Cole Porter Mix" (Blue Note Records, 2008). Two sophisticated songwriters: Porter and Barber.
"Mythologies" (Blue Note Records, 2006). Barber's boldest work: a Schubertian song cycle.
"Live: A Fortnight in France" (Blue Note Records, 2004). Intimate readings of standards and originals.
"Verse" (Blue Note/Premonition Records, 2002). Barber's hyperliterate songwriting blossoms.
"Nightclub" (Blue Note/Premonition Records, 2000). Whispering lyricism for nocturnal listening.
"Modern Cool" (Premonition Records, 1998). Barber's breakthrough recording.

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