It’s hard to know exactly how to introduce Patricia Barber.
To some, she’s a composer, adding her impressive and important voice to the ever-changing musical source that we call the jazz songbook. To others, she’s a unique and important singer with a haunting tone that envelopes every lyric she delivers. Then there are those who know her as an interpreter, paraphrasing and sometimes fully reinventing music and elements from the worlds of jazz, pop, classical and more.
Overall, Barber is one of the most important forces in the evolving idiom of jazz, as demonstrated in each of her recordings, from her 1989 debut Split to her latest project Clique that’s set for release on Aug. 6.
You recorded the material for Higher and Clique at the same time. What was the reasoning behind releasing them this way – Higher back in 2019, and Clique now?
When you look back through my career, my albums of original material are artistically and critically important. You may or may not be a fan, you may or may not like them, but they are important. The album of original material has to be released on its own merit, so it can be looked at and absorbed by musicians and critics. By the way, it took me six years to write that music — it was not easy.
What was the impetus behind writing Higher?
It was a coming together of a couple things: I had been listening more to classical music and learning about classical music … a lot of French composers; and also my time with Renée Fleming in 2015, the concerts that we did together and becoming friends with her and wanting to write music that would be worthy of her voice. It wasn’t just chance that we came together; I think she could hear that my music was going that way.
Most people know her for classical, but she’s definitely worked in jazz as well. Was there an immediate connection when you started working together?
It was a slow burn. She’s careful. She came to see me in New York at the Jazz Standard — that’s my first memory of meeting her. I met her a couple more times, and she would come out to the Green Mill when she was in Chicago just to have a glass of wine. She would just enjoy and listen. Little did I know, she doesn’t just enjoy and listen — she was actually copying down songs that she liked, that she wanted to hear again, that she wanted to sing. One time I asked her what she wanted to hear tonight, and she showed me a list on her iPhone of the songs she wanted to hear, very specifically. That was the beginning. We started talking from there and we did a concert series together in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.
As a vocalist, you have an interesting way of presenting a lyric. It borders on Sprechstimme, this speak-singing thing that you do. Is that something you’ve cultivated, or is it something that just happens?
The more narrative-driven songs — the ones that are very wordy — are definitely more Sprechstimme, and they need to be, because you have to spit the words out fast … so you don’t really have time for suspended notes. I would say my biggest vocal influence is Elis Regina. Brazilian singers have a kind of clipped way of singing. They aren’t big on sustain. I like that, and Shirley Horn and Carmen McRae.
You talked about the idea of embracing silence, and how that comes with time and experience. How does that life experience allow you to better embrace the idea of silence?
It’s scary in music, sometimes, to leave silence. You think that your contribution to the world is playing or singing music, and so the idea that maybe your contribution right now is best if you just don’t play or sing, that’s a hard thing for musicians and singers to get used to. Silence up on stage is a hard thing to get used to. But I’m a big fan of silence, and I think silence is what makes the music so interesting. It takes experience, confidence and time. I also have the world’s most sensitive musicians who go along with what I would like to hear and are able to embrace that quieter aesthetic, with a lot of silence. You also have to have a recording engineer like Jim Anderson who can record silence and not have it be a hiss, an unpleasant sound. It has to be an absolute silence so that you feel the way the audience feels, which is that maybe you’re fine.
There are some people who will work with different artists all the time, and they want to mix it up. In an ideal world, do you prefer to have a consistency in your team that are part of the overall aesthetic, or do you like to mix it up and see what gets injected with new blood?
Both. I really, really like the way that a band sounds — a band that has rehearsed and toured together, a band that, when they go into the studio, they know the arrangements and how far to go with improvising and stylizing. I like that, but lately I’ve been really enjoying playing with women wherever I can find them. But I also can’t say enough about these musicians [on Clique]: drummer Jon Deitemyer, bassist Patrick Mulcahy, guitarist Neal Alger and saxophonist Jim Gailloretto.
How important is it for you to be known as a composer? And would you feel that way if you weren’t presenting your music yourself — if you were composing for others to present?
I love it when others sing my music. I actually would like to do more of that. I think part of the responsibility for that lies on my shoulders to get this latest music notated and up on the website so they can get it, but I do have some of that done. Writing out something like The Opera Song is more or less impossible — it’s kind of a free-for-all. Would I like to be known as a composer? Yes, and I’m glad that somehow things have changed and that’s how I am known and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences inducted me. I’m a composer, a pianist and a singer, but without the composition it wouldn’t be as interesting. The music is always moving forward. Like I said, you may or may not be a fan of the album, you may or may not be a fan of mine, but the music is always moving forward. On Higher, what you have are some really interesting harmonic changes that step outside the normal chord changes for the American songbook and jazz.
Moving ahead to the new record, where you’re doing other people’s materials, I’ve read a lot of descriptions of it being “highly anticipated” and “long-awaited.” How much, if any, pressure do you feel as an artist to do other people’s work? And how do you choose the music for a record like this?
I feel no pressure to do other people’s music. I do it because I enjoy it, and I do it when I like it. How do I choose? This was really just a matter of calling from our set. I had been picking songs that were fun to play and would also break up the more difficult, brand new material with different harmonies. As pleasant as it is, it takes more concentration. Especially in different countries, it was really good to have something like This Town to break up the set.
With albums such as Mythologies and Higher, you created the projects based on song cycles. At a time when the industry tends to focus on singles, the song cycle is meant to be listened to consecutively. Is that a world you like living in, in terms of having an overall story in a program of material as opposed to one or two songs?
It’s definitely a challenge. It took me six years. If I’m in the mood to really change things, to give jazz musicians a whole new harmonic palette or enlarge their palette, it’s going to take six years. You’re living inside that music for a long, long time, and struggling with it. Sometimes I’m in the mood for that, and sometimes I’m not. Right now, I really couldn’t tell you what I’m in the mood for. I’ve been doing a lot of prose writing, just taking a break from composition.
You have a master’s degree in jazz pedagogy, and I remember hearing you on stage one time talking about the idea that jazz musicians tend to instruct a little bit more even from the stage, and that that’s a necessary thing. In this style of music — which has been traditionally taught musician to musician, on the stage — do you see institutional learning changing the way in which the music is created and the way it’s developing?
I’ve heard musicians say that. I’ve heard a lot of musicians say that schooling of jazz is changing jazz. I do think it makes it into kind of an academic exercise. But eventually you’re going to have to step on stage, and if it’s not interesting, if it’s not compelling, if they’re just giving us the fastest run of scales that they possibly can, they’re not going to last very long. Ultimately, they’re going to learn on the streets, they’re going to learn on the stage, regardless of whether or not they started at school. It all ends up on the streets.
You mentioned that you’re delving more into the world of prose writing. With this new project out, do you have any plans for touring? Are you going to take a break and concentrate on a different style of writing? What plans are you making?
I don’t know. That’s where I’m at right now. Just to be honest, I don’t know. I’m not one who wants to take home the Delta variant. It’s not worth it to me. To be on stage is not worth it to deal with that issue. A lot of the clubs and venues are small, and they don’t have the wherewithal to ventilate the building. The United States, in its ridiculous way, has not yet imposed mask mandates or vaccination checks at the doors. You want people back at the venues … but I don’t think that people are going to go until they feel safe. And I’m certainly not going to go, because I’m at high risk. I’m content waiting, but in order to be content waiting, you have to have financial means. I have some financial means in that I never trusted music so I started buying up real estate when I was really young. So, I have enough to support me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.