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Cirque Du Soleil
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Patricia Barber
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Cirque Du Soleil
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Jim Pearce
“Why I Haven't Got You”
Prairie Dog Ballet
(Oak Avenue Publishing)
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Andy Timmons Band
“Gone (9/11/01)”
(Favored Nations)
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Ralph Towner
Time Line
(ECM Records)
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Anoushka Shankar

Amos Lee
"Arms Of A Woman"
Amos Lee
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Julius Curcio
"American Pie"
Alligator Shoes
(Electric Roots)
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"Come Alive"
Changing Into Me
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Cover Story [Issue # 22 ]
Ptricia Barber: Ptricia Barber's Mythologies

By Scott Yanow

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 Zimmerman’s 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 Shakespeare’s 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 it’s 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, I’m gorgeous and grateful it’s ‘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 / There’s no slaking of thirst, no quenching of need / And there’s 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 1995.

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 I’m 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.

Blue Note

Ptricia Barber's Mythologies Ptricia Barber Mythologies

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