Jazz singer Patricia Barber tells it like it is, both offstage and on her new CD, Nightclub
“My mother, who’s 81 and the love of my life, has waited patiently for 20 years for this record,” says jazz singer-pianist Patricia Barber, talking about the 12 vintage song classics on her new CD, Nightclub (Blue Note/ Premonition). “But I didn’t feel I could do anything like this until I’d created an identity that was stronger than this material.”
At 44, she has identity to spare. Based in Chicago–where she lives with her partner of more than two years, musicologist Martha Feldman–the classically trained Barber has been playing her own brand of jazz for over two decades. Over six feet tall and strikingly attractive, Barber is known for taking audiences on an eclectic ride that might include anything from “Ode to Billie Joe” to her own sophisticated compositions.
With Nightclub, though, Barber goes back to the basics. The collection spans several decades of the American songbook, from the Roaring ’20s gem “Bye Bye Blackbird” to “All or Nothing at All” from the swing era to Butt Bacharach’s late-’60s classic “Alfie.” Barber comes naturally to these standards. First taught piano at age 6 by her late father, a sax player who played a few time’s with the legendary Glenn Miller band, Barber calls these songwriters “my role models. I’m very respectful of these songs and always have been.”
She feels the same way about the vocalists who first performed those songs. “Singing I really didn’t do seriously until college,” she muses. “Before then, I was drawn strongly to classic vocal singers–Sinatra, Peggy Lee. Judy Garland was my biggest thing.”
Garland? That’s an unexpected choice from someone whose own style is so quintessentially modern. But mention Judy, and Barber’s sensual presence–like an even more laid-back Lauren Bacall–melts into almost girlish delight. “I know this is very corny for somebody my age, because at the time all my friends were into the Beatles,” she says. “But I just couldn’t believe how much emotion she could wring out of a song. I know every line, every note of the Carnegie Hall album.”
Not that Barber herself ever seems inclined to take on the cliched jazz-icon image of the tragic woman. “Hopefully, that stereotype is over, especially the African-American singer who was taken advantage of,” Barber observes. “Cassandra Wilson’s a very powerful woman, and she’s busted out of that. The one song I do like that is ‘Don’t Explain,’ a beautiful song Billie Holiday did. I usually make a disclaimer at the end that it’s a fictional story and I don’t feel this way–and if you come home with lipstick on your collar, you’ve got some explaining to do.”
Among her own songs Barber chooses “Touch of Trash” as “a fun one I’m very proud of. It’s about the power and the beauty of a woman. That’s a good thing–and it’s not such a good thing.” With a throaty chuckle, she adds: “But it is a powerful thing.”
And what about being a woman and a lesbian in the jazz world? “If you’re a woman, you’re a physical anomaly in jazz,” she answers. “I’d say men have a harder time because there are more of them. As a woman you get noticed more easily, and you get more work. As a lesbian I haven’t noticed any difference whatsoever. It’s not like working for IBM. They don’t expect us to follow the norm. In fact, they expect you to be a drug addict! So, I’ve never noticed any repercussions. I know it’s not a very popular answer, but it’s my answer.”
Velez also writes for Time Out New York and BarnesandNoble.com.
Find more on Patricia Barber and her albums at www.advocate.com
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