After several years wandering the major label wilderness (mostly by choice), the one-of-a-kind Chicago singer and pianist Patricia Barber recently released Smash, her debut record on the Concord Jazz label. While many of the album’s tunes deal with heavy themes, they are handled in typical Barber fashion—with a mix of inventive, often unexpected wordplay and occasional doses of her trademark dry wit.
A Monday night fixture at the legendary Green Mill in Uptown, Barber is one of Chicago’s treasures. Here she talks about being back on a major label, working with her current group, and telling stories of love and loss.
This is your first record for Concord after stints with Premonition, Blue Note and independence. How did the relationship with Concord come about and what makes you believe it will be a fruitful one?
Nick (Phillips, an executive at Concord) reminded me so much of a young (former Blue Note Records president) Bruce Lundvall in his musical sophistication and enthusiasm that I didn’t see how we could go wrong. I seem to thrive with a mentor with whom to collaborate.
Smash is a collection of original songs that all seem to deal with some aspect of loss or heartache. Did you consciously sit down and write these as kind of a thematic suite?
Before Concord got involved, the project started as a syllabic song series. Many of these songs have specific poetic rhyme schemes with a certain amount of syllables per line. Then the universe took five of my most beloved from me within a short span of time. It was not easy to survive their deaths. And the grief found its way into the songs.
What’s your favorite song on the new record and why?
I can never pick favorites—they're like my children.
Is there anything about this album that you think will surprise long-time fans?
They will hear a logical and strong “Patricia Barber” sound moving ahead. It may well surprise new fans because of the mixing of jazz forms and harmonies with other types of music.
Talk a little about the band you’re working with now. What is it about this particular group that you’re really enjoying these days?
Larry Kohut on bass, Jon Deitemyer on drums, and John Kregor on guitar have a similar mix of form mastery and maturity that allows the music a flexibility, a wide dynamic and emotional range, and a group generosity that makes it a surprise and pleasure to listen to every night. It is truly a living, growing, and changing organism.
How would you say your writing and playing have developed over the years?
I have been consistently trying to learn as much about jazz, lyrics, piano playing, singing, harmony, poetry, Schubert, Bach, string quartets, etc. as I can fit into a day. I have no other job than this. It is hard to describe in words how I have developed, but easy to hear.
Patricia Barber returns to the Green Mill on Monday, February 11 (Patrick Mulcahy subs in on bass, 4802 N. Broadway. $7. greenmilljazz.com.
Photograph: Jammi York