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Patricia Barber

Award-winning jazz pianist, singer, and songwriter Patricia Barber's unique style and unusual voice make her an easy artist to distinguish. Her playing and singing are almost iconoclastically inventive, inhabiting a terrain inside and outside a musical slipstream that exists between post-bop, pop, classical music, cabaret song, and avant-garde, while being performed -- in studio and on-stage -- with a smoky, dreamy, yet imposing, mercurial presence. Her insistence on writing her own material (and adapting songs from the pop world that suit her particular aesthetic) makes her difficult to categorize. Her unwillingness to play music business promotional games resulted in having her work evaluated by critics on its own terms. She is a tireless performer who has, in addition to touring the globe, played a standing residency at Chicago's famous jazz room, the Green Mill, for many years. Early albums such as A Distortion of Love and Cafe Blue initially resonated with European listeners, though their artistic appeal ultimately reached U.S. college campuses during the '90s and put her on the jazz charts. During her years with Blue Note -- 2000 through 2008 -- she issued wildly diverse recordings such as Verse, which reflected intersections between jazz and literature with a quirky accessibility that won her a Guggenheim fellowship for composition. Later, Mythologies, a song cycle based on Ovid's Metamorphosis, won over an entirely new breed of listeners for its embrace and ultimate transgression of art song. She has always respectfully refused to conform to conventional vocal jazz idioms and, in her phrasing and sense of "stretched" time, reveals an affinity for Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell more than canonical sources. The daughter of Floyd "Shim" Barber and a blues vocalist, she had all but rejected the idea of becoming a jazz musician, but found herself drawn to the performing world after college. When she returned to Chicago, she was trashed by the local critics, and only after winning a five-day-a-week gig at the intimate Gold Star Sardine Bar and releasing her first album on her own Floyd label (1989's Split) did the tide begin to turn for her. She signed a contract with Verve and released A Distortion of Love in 1992, which brought her some critical attention and earned her a national audience, but the big-label experience was trying for her, and she sought a place where she could have more creative control. Her next two albums, 1994's Café Blue and 1998's Modern Cool, were issued by the tiny local label Premonition. The label was purchased by Blue Note in 1998, and the organization put some marketing muscle behind Barber, helping to bolster the international reputation she had already begun to earn. Blue Note released Companion in 1999, intended to act as her introduction to a wider audience -- the album reprised much of her popular material and was recorded live at Chicago's Green Mill, a historic jazz club where Barber had been performing weekly for several years. 2000's Night Club took her back into a studio setting, but still featured many of the inventive interpretations that had distinguished her work in the past. Barber issued her edgy, critically acclaimed Verse on the Blue Note label in 2002. She won a Guggenheim in March of 2003 to create a song cycle based on Ovid's Metamorphoses. Her concert set Live: A Fortnight in Paris was issued on the label in 2004, consisting of five originals, five covers, and two brand new songs. Mythologies, based on Ovid's poems, followed in 2006. A year later, the anthology The Premonition Years: 1992-2002 appeared, detailing most of Barber's early releases. Barber took a break from her original material and delivered the jazz standards studio album The Cole Porter Mix in 2008. She toured in support of the album and continued to play festivals along with her Monday night Green Mill gig at home in Chicago. She continued writing, and tried out her new material at the club, using a revolving cast of players -- many of whom were among the city's younger generation. Barber signed to Concord in 2012. Smash, her debut offering for the label, was released in January of 2013. She toured Europe with her quartet, as well as the U.S., and Asia, before re-settling into her residency at the Green Mill. During this period, she conceived and wrote another art song cycle. In 2015, Barber toured "Angels, Birds, and I" with Renée Fleming. The following year she performed it at Chicago's Harris Theater to open the prestigious Ear Taxi New Music Festival. In 2018, she undertook an ArtistShare crowd-funding project and recorded it. The cycle "Angels, Birds, and I..." was recorded in juxtaposition with unique arrangements of Great American Songbook tunes and released as Higher in the spring of 2019.

© Stacia Proefrock /TiVo


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