Although she’s been a recording artist for over two decades, jazz pianist Patricia Barber says she wasn’t totally comfortable with her career choice until she had been doing it for years.
“I’ve always said it was a stupid thing for a smart woman to do, to go into jazz,” she said from her home in Chicago. “But it’s sort of in your blood, I think.”
To say Barber attained her musical talent through osmosis isn’t much of a stretch: Her mother was a blues singer and her father was a saxophonist who played frequently with Glenn Miller Orchestra. Barber and her two sisters took piano lessons as children, but they had the most profound impact on her.
“With me it just stuck,” she said. “I started at 5 and I just wanted to practice.”
Her family moved to Nebraska after her father’s death, and Barber enrolled at the University of Iowa without much of a future trajectory in mind.
“I had started college not knowing exactly what I was going to do, probably musical education,” Barber said. “And then I just became my father. I became a jazz musician. I called my mother and told her, and she started crying. But afterwards she was all for it and came to all my gigs.”
The progression from music student to full-time music-maker felt like a natural one for Barber, and she cut her first album, “Split,” in 1989. She continued recording, touring and playing regularly in Chicago, and in 2003, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship grant, the first ever awarded to a songwriter. The result of the grant was an album called “Mythologies,” an ambitious song cycle inspired by Ovid’s epic poem “The Metamorphoses.”
That was when Barber says she started to feel at ease as an artist. “There’s some marker of success sometime that makes you relax a little bit, and that did it for me,” she said.
But in spite of her professional success, Barber says that her songwriting methods have never really changed. “My process is exactly the same,” she said. “I don’t necessarily start with the words or the music first. Sometimes it’s a musical hook, sometimes it’s a harmonic structure. The only thing is, of course, you have to sit down and try. Like Joni Mitchell has said, she’s not sure something’s going to come out when she sits down, but she’s sure it won’t if she doesn’t sit down.”
Barber points to Mitchell as one of her primary inspirations, as well as “the usual culprits” like Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. Her arrangements, especially on her newest album “Smash,” are sparse and melancholy, and her literate lyrics and full voice recall a moodier, more introspective Diana Krall.
And what does Barber try to convey through her music when she’s performing for an audience? Everything, she said.
“I feel like they’ve wasted their money if I don’t dig it out to break their heart at least once, and that’s hard. You can’t skate through that. You really have to dig it out and do something that is honest and meaningful. That’s just the wonder of jazz – it’s intellectually and emotionally stimulating.”