Date of Release Nov 25, 1991 - Nov 29, 1991 (recording) inprint. Styles - Cabaret. Recorded on november 25-27 & 29, 1991.
Pianist and singer Patricia Barber's second album (and major-label debut) is a consistently interesting, but not always completely rewarding, array of original instrumentals, vocal standards, and surprise cover versions. The arrangement of "Summertime" that opens the program is eerie almost to the point of creepiness, and all the more effective for it: after a long instrumental prelude, Barber sings the lyrics over the most minimal bass-and-piano unison pedal point, her voice goosed with reverb and wailing softly like a ghost. "Subway Station #5," the original composition that follows, is nervous, jumpy, barely tonal, and moves niftily from a contrapuntal and polyrhythmic introduction into a straight swing section. The problem is that it lasts almost ten minutes, and by the seventh or eighth minute, its ideas seem pretty well played out. "Or Not to Be" and "Yet Another in a Long Series of Yellow Cars" suffer from similar treatment. But her singing on "You Stepped Out of a Dream" and, especially, her sweet and touching rendition of the soul classic "My Girl" are quietly spectacular. There's every reason to expect great things of her in the future.
All Music Guide
========= from the cover ==========
Some recordings knock you out; this one will wake you up.
We live in a world all too ready for music like this: a world teeming with extravagant, unsure artists who think it necessary to spew emotions at a steady clip, to "let it all hang out." Musicians, writers, sculptors, even architects, they flood the arena with sloppy sentiment, demystifying and devaluing the layered complexity of human experience. But every so often, an artist appears with such authority, such unquestioned control of medium and message, that the surrounding milieu loses its focus for at least a moment. Patricia Barber is just such an artist; and if you're among those who have never heard the full range other creativity, I envy you. Encountering Barber for the first time yields a delicious shock, and a slow-creeping thrill that you won't soon forget.
Her uniqueness resides in almost every aspect other music. Start with her voice, for instance. Like moonlight over water, it is both opaque and transparent; when she sings, she does not "let it all hang out." In fact, even when she soars with passion (as on "You Stepped Out Of A Dream"), she keeps a little something to herself, a private comer that invites and resists exploration. The same crisp and almost austere clarity also pervades her scrupulously defined piano work, even at fast tempos; yet she proves improvisationally intrepid, allowing a melodic line or rhythmic impulse to lead her past expectable guideposts and into regions as enchanting as they are uncharted (the two tracks from her "Yellow Car" series).
Her arrangements, and the pieces she herself writes, often seem to have eclipsed, mere originality and to have arrived from another dimension. A signal example on this album is "Summertime," the done-to-death Gershwin classic that achieves rebirth in Barber's hypnotic, even eerie conceptualization. You've never heard this song this way; the naked and inexorable pulse, barely ornamented by percussion shakers, recalls Hopi Indian music, while the limber vocalizations edge the lullaby lyrics toward the void.
Another example is "Parts Parallels," an homage to the Estonian composer Arvo Part. The swirling, unsettled cast of this piece arises from the widely-spaced harmonies that provide its foundation. "It's made with moving open fifths -the thing that you learn in college you're never supposed to do -and it led to what I think are the most fascinating chord progressions, minor chord going to minor chord. It's a challenge trying to improvise over that, and it has a particular sound -a lost tonality." And what, I wonder, will you make of the atmospheric and quirky "Or Not To Be" - once you learn it began life as the Dave Brubeck hit "Take Five"?
"That's how I started it," Barber says, laying bare the dream logic of inspiration. "I actually started singing the lyrics that Al Jarreau uses. Then I pulled farther and farther away from the theme, until there was no longer any theme." The resultant composition shares only a time-signature with the song from which it developed; it also features Barber singing harmony (in fourths -these are devilishly difficult intervals) with her own improvised piano lines. Most listeners will assume she used double-tracking to achieve this effect; she did not.
"I'm just trying to distill things, to find the essence," explains Barber, and that simple quest shapes her life as well as her music. "I just don't want anything to be comy. And everything is corny to me these days. Everything. I can't go to a play; I've tried. In a play everything is so overdone, because it has to be: I mean, they have to speak loudly. But if it's redundant at all -it's comy. If you manipulate anything, even one note, to get the audience response, at that moment it becomes comy, and everybody knows it. If you stay inside a song completely, with integrity - then it works. The music has to direct itself."
Patricia Barber started growing up around Chicago, the daughter of a jazz saxophonist; she spent her teens on the Iowa-Nebraska border, and returned to Chicago after college - where she had sublimated her jazz roots by pursuing a dual degree, in classical piano and psychology. "I thought that becoming a jazz musician was such a stupid thing for a woman to do -for a smart woman to do -that I tried to resist it." But the smart woman was not immune to the little girl, who used to "feel the music" by placing her hand inside Daddy's saxophone. By the early 80s, she had moved back to Chicago with slim experience playing jazz but an assured sense of what she needed to learn; in 1984, she settled her trio into the Gold Star Sardine Bar -a cramped anachronism catering to that mixture of refinement and street life known as savvy -where she has reigned almost without interruption.
On this, her first major-label recording, the Chicago based Barber performs with two of her favorite musicians -bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Adam Nussbaum -and guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, who was suggested by Antilles vice president Brian Bacchus, and who earned Barber's respect in the two days they worked on this recording. "I was just blown away by him," she says. "He can play sensitive, he can play strong; he was incredible." (That's hardly the only reason Muthspiel fits so well. To prepare for this album, Barber regularly augmented her working trio with a guitarist, in order to accustom herself to the extra instrument, and to learn how to incorporate it in her arrangements.)
"What interested me about this whole session was how professional these guys were, how hardworking: from 8 in the morning, with one lunch break, all day long, they never complained. If I was satisfied with a take but they thought we could do it better, we did it again. I was humbled, and amazed." To gauge the empathy at work in the studio, consider "You Stepped Out Of A Dream." Barber had been experimenting with the extended vamp that doses the piece, but she hadn't communicated that to her sidemen before the first take; and yet, as she marvels, "They were right there; they had no idea what I was doing, but they let the music direct them": they made the adjustments, and that first take was the only one needed.
For Barber, though, the spirit ot this album resides in the unlikeliest part of the program, the 60s soul smash "My Girl." Barber calls it a "fluke-the kind of thing that should happen during recording sessions. The engineers were doing some technical things between songs, and Marc Johnson -who to me is the best bass player in the world -is in his booth and he starts playing the bass line to 'My Girl.' Just killing time. So I start singing it, and-well, the microphones were on, and Brian said, 'Oh My God, can you do that?' I didn't really know the whole tune, so they sent a messenger to get the music; then we took it in a direction completely away from the original."
Barber's uncompromising approach to music has made her a minor legend in Chicago, and an unheralded sensation in Paris and at the North Sea Jazz Festival, where she has appeared annually since 1989.
(That same year, her refusal to tailor her music for unthinking producers led her to record and release her debut album, called Split, on her own label.) Her collaboration with Antilles will certainly place Barber's music in more demand; true to form, however, she sees all too dearly how mixed a blessing that can be.
You see, for six months in 1991, Barber cut back her schedule in order to spend more time reading and reflecting; to accommodate her reduced income, she moved to the less expensive west side, and willingly dined on rice and beans when necessary. The experience showed her how easily she might become a recluse artist, like J.D. Salinger or Sonny Rollins during his occasional sabbaticals. "Fifty percent of my job is looking for inspiration. The other fifty percent is delivering it, but the first part is finding something to put back in, so that you're not empty, and you're not bitter when you're performing."
Yet the bitterness lingers on the edges. "1 think this business destroys people," Barber states. "I think it tears at their souls. I've seen what it's done to friends of mine who did things I would never have believed-just for a job, for a hundred dollars a night.
"Musicians put up with all this because we love the music so much. I've discovered something since taking this time off: the music lives anyway, regardless of whether you perform it. I have it, at home, and surprisingly I'm satisfied with that. It can be just magic, at dusk, when you're at the piano, and you're doing something you've never done before. And then, later, you want to share it; you always want to bring out this new thing that you've found, to see if it works for anyone else."
From such obsessions and observations comes the music on this disc-music created as much out of need as desire, encompassing a wholly original artistic vision. With Patricia Barber, you can hear that anatomy of passion but something more. You also find the passion of intellect: the pure emotion generated by brilliant and exciting ideas. In a world that routinely sets these qualities in opposition, Barber chooses toimite them - to resolve the split. And within their twining tendrils lies the radiant heart of music.
- Neil Tesser