You know how proud you feel when you knew about something's coolness before everybody else thought it was cool? You enjoy feeling like you somehow were a part of its rising popularity even though you pretty much had nothing to do with it. That's how I feel about Patricia Barber. We were introduced in 1995 when she had a regular Sunday/ Monday gig every week at The Green Mill, one of Chicago's premier jazz clubs. And now, she's a pioneer in the jazz world, setting new standards with her musicianship and lyricism.
Barber's paid her dues. After working the Green Mill gig for five years, coming out with two studio albums, and earning a master's degree from Northwestern University, Barber broke onto the scene with her 1998 release modern cool (Premonition). With it, she proved she had gathered the essential tools needed to create new combinations of musical expression -- and she did it all without the help of a producer or major label.
It's her well-roundedness that makes her so powerful. Her artistic drive is confident and modest, her virtuoso piano playing kept together with difficult, odd time signatures, complex harmonies and minimal fill. She scats with eerie intentions, filling space with haunting emotions (listen to "Constantinople" on modern cool). And her lyrics are blessed with a grand perspective of life, death, love and social transgressions. With satiric mocking in "Company," she comments:
I like a cell-phone conversation
short enough to slip in the cracks of
the call-waiting generation
I like a foreign film or two
if that's what everyone else likes to do
She's authentic, intense and likes to visit the fringes. After modern cool, Blue Note Records started helping her distribute her work, introducing her to an even broader world of jazz. Her live album Companion (Premonition/Blue Note), recorded at The Green Mill, is an extension of some of the ideas on modern cool with a few innovative arrangements of covers like Sonny Bono's "The Beat Goes On" and Bill Withers' "Use Me." Her latest release Nightclub (Premonition/Blue Note) is filled with 12 fresh renditions of old standards played with discipline and a hint of personal prodding.
Her live performances not only show a great respect for the music she's creating, they also show a great respect for the audience's intelligence, giving them music to digest long after they get home from the show. Barber's the industry rebel jazz needs to move ahead of itself.