While recording her latest album, Modern Cool, last January, jazz singer and pianist Patricia Barber just wasn't satisfied with Dave Douglas's trumpet solo on her tune "Silent Partner."
Douglas, who has played with everyone from John Zorn to Cibo Matto and last year was declared the best working trumpeter in jazz by a consensus of critics, tried the part six times before Barber approved it. "Every time he did the solo, it was just beautiful," says Mike Friedman, whose local Premonition label has released Barber's last two CDs. "It's just that she had an idea of what the solo should sound like."
She did indeed: "I asked him, 'Have you ever been a slave to passion?'" Barber recalls.
"Well, I had to take a girl out to breakfast once," Douglas responded.
Undeterred, Barber explained to him how the girl in this song felt "waiting in a hotel room" for her secret lover. Douglas hit it on the next try.
Barber, 43, decided some years ago that she needs to run the show--and it's starting to look like she's right. Modern Cool, released at the end of June, sold 35,000 copies in its first six months, despite being distributed by a Chicago independent label that had done only five other records. Good sales for a jazz album start at 25,000--Herbie Hancock's high-profile Gershwin's World, which debuted at number one on the Billboard jazz chart this fall, has sold just 74,000 copies, according to SoundScan.
The critics liked the album as much as the public did: Modern Cool got five stars from Down Beat, Barber was interviewed on NPR, and a seven-city tour in February gathered more glowing reviews. The New York Times said her performance "confirmed her status as a talent deserving of much wider recognition." In the first week of March the album reached number nine on the Billboard chart.
But only about six years ago, Barber committed what many called professional suicide. She made her first CD, Split, on her own in 1989. It got her signed to Antilles, a subsidiary of Polygram, which released her 1992 CD, A Distortion of Love. But a corporate reorganization left Barber and some of her labelmates feeling like they'd been "handed to a different company, like baseball players." When the new regime asked for artistic control of her next record, Barber walked.
"When I turned down a major label because they were prescribing direction...no major label came to me and said, 'Do what you want,'" she says. But eventually Premonition did just that, issuing her Cafe Blue in 1994: "Mike Friedman came and said, 'I loved Distortion of Love. Is that the direction you think you'll be going?' I said yes. He said, 'Let's do it.'"
Much of the critical attention for Modern Cool has focused on Barber's lyrics, which are both beautifully intelligent and decidedly sensual. As the San Francisco Chronicle put it, Barber combines "the poetic songwriting approach of Joni Mitchell and the sophisticated jazz of Bill Evans." Nine of the dozen tunes on Modern Cool are originals.
Among her favorites is "Touch of Trash," which she says "deals with a politically incorrect subject, which is the power of superficial beauty, the effect it has to make your knees weak and essentially to pull you into hell, and what a gift that is to all of us." The first verse is: "The perfect shade of lipstick / A red that belies / Insouciance / Carefully weaved into a style / Eyeliner drawn with an artisan's hand / Replication makes perfection / She's just a button short of trash."
Part of Barber's appeal is her own sexiness. At a recent Schubas show, all five feet eleven inches of her is in black--black tuxedo jacket, black V neck, black trousers. She presses her hand into the bare V, twisting her fingers dangerously back. She leans in close to the piano, gets right up on the mike, and sings in sultry, hushed tones. "There is a quality to my music that has to do with tension and release, and that is very sexual," she acknowledges. "It's like making love. There's a sense to my music of extended foreplay."
For the record, Barber is a lesbian; she's been involved with the same woman for ten years. But she resists letting her private life define her public persona. "Except for gay women, who will sometimes use me as a role model, I have never found my audience to be homogeneous," she says. "It's certainly good for me because I don't enjoy restrictive groups of any kind--not all white, not all Jewish, not all black. I can't stand to be the flag bearer for any group....I've had some serious fights."
She says gay publications are the worst offenders. "I never defined myself. It was defined for me," she fumes. "I have told these editors, 'Ask me, would I give up sex or music?' I would give up sex. This is about music but it is about all of our desire. This is about love and the need to be loved."
Barber pulls the late shift nearly every Sunday night at the Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, duetting with her longtime bassist, Michael Arnopol, and on Mondays they play the same venue with drummer Eric Montzka. This weekend she'll play two gigs with a quintet that also includes guitarist John McLean and percussionist Ruben Alvarez, including one that's free: a promotional gig Friday at 6 at Borders Books & Music, 830 N. Michigan. The group will then headline at the Green Mill Saturday at 8. Call the Green Mill at 773-878-5552 or Borders at 312-573-0564 for more information. Barber's also part of the "Women Who Swing" showcase at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Sunday at 6:30; see Neil Tesser's Critic's Choice in Section Three for more info. --Mara Tapp
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marc Pokempner.