Cover Story [Issue
Ptricia Barber's Mythologies
CD Blue Note )
Throughout her career, singer-pianist-composer Patricia Barber has always traveled
her own path. Her most recent project, a song cycle titled Mythologies, is
based on The Metamorphoses Of Ovid, an ancient classic that features 11 characters
from Greek mythology that were written about by the Roman poet, Ovid.
"I had applied for a Guggenheim grant, the first one I ever tried for, and
to my surprise I won it, remembers Barber. That made this project
possible. I had seen Mary Zimmermans production of The Metamorphoses and
it inspired me to write this music about the characters.
Song cycles are very rare in jazz. Duke Ellington, who musically portrayed some
of William Shakespeares characters in Such Sweet Thunder, is one of the
few to explore the art form although it is more common in rock and classical.
To prepare for this unusual project, which took place over a 2 1/2 year period
as she conducted her busy career, Patricia Barber immersed herself in Greek mythology,
ancient poets and classical composers. The end results, while informed by
the past, are quite contemporary and fresh. In addition to her own singing
and piano playing, she utilizes her long-time quartet (which includes guitarist
Neal Alger, bassist Michael Arnopol and drummer Eric Montzma), guest saxophonist
Jim Gailloreto and background vocalists on Persephone, Phaeton
and The Hours.
When asked if she identifies closely with any of the characters, Barber laughs
as she says, Narcissus, but we all have a bit of that person in us. The
unique portrayals include The Moon (the moon is a broken-hearted
performer who still has to dress up and perform each night or the world will stay
dark), Morpheus, Pygamlion, a humorous look at Hunger,
Icarus (a piece dedicated to Nina Simone), Orpheus (a
musician appealing to Hades to let his love, Eurydice, live again), Persephone
(a song of seduction), Narcissus, Whiteworld
(which is about Oedipus), Phaethon, and The Hours.
For this haunting and consistently inspired project that is one of her most accessible
works, Patricia Barber wrote all of the music and lyrics. Some passages are
particularly memorable as when Morpheus begs to the God of Sleep for relief from
insomnia: Will you sing softly / Will you keep watch as the light begins
to wane / Steadfast and sweet, will you remain / God of my dreams, and let me
sleep? Hunger both pays tribute to the original character
and the current obsession to always be thin: Everything is food, everything
is fair game / The second its gone is the second I crave / More animal,
vegetable, mineral feed / More fodder, more fuel, more cake and ice cream / In
Scythia, where the pickings are slim, Im gorgeous and grateful its
in to be thin / Wan and pale, I court emaciation / In high style and
endless mastication / With cheekbones and ribs that tighten my skin / Wildly attractive
and seductive as sin / The closer you come, the more you want me / The more you
want, the more you want to be free / Theres no slaking of thirst, no quenching
of need / And theres never, ever, enough to eat. The dilemma
of Pygmalion, who desires for a statue of a woman to come to life,
is difficult to beat in its frustration: Cold as stone / Possessor of bone-chilling
beauty/I, alone/Wanting but not wanting to be / Scratching and clawing at this
/ Waiting for something to give / So give me a sign / A shiver, a sigh / A look
in your eye / A reason to live.
It is fair to say that Patricia Barber is not a run-of-the-mill talent.
She grew up in the Chicago suburb of Lisle and Sioux City, Nebraska, playing jazz
in high school. My father, Floyd Barber, was a jazz musician who played
alto saxophone with Glenn Miller and lots of Chicago legends including Bud Freeman. I
started singing when I decided I wanted the lead in the high school musical. I
had been a pianist, saxophonist and drummer up until that point. She attended
the University of Iowa in Iowa City as a piano major and became a professional
musician, moving to Chicago the following year. She formed a musical partnership
with bassist Michael Arnopol as early as 1980, was based at the Gold Star Sardine
Bar during 1984-95 and has worked regularly at the Green Mill in Chicago since
Throughout her career, which with Mythologies now includes nine CDs cut for either
the Premonition or Blue Note labels, Barber has been a true original. Her
music cuts across many categories and, although it includes the improvisations
of jazz (her piano playing should never be overlooked), her haunting vocals also
appeal to audiences more attuned to folk, pop and rock music. In other words,
she is unique.
When asked about future musical goals, Patricia Barber simply states To
do exactly what Im doing: writing music, arranging it, performing it.
With the release of Mythologies, one can certainly bet that the future will include
many more future surprises from this formidable talent.