Oedipus Complexity: For 'Mythologies,' her newest release, jazz singer Patricia Barber drew inspiration from Greek and Roman literature.
Notes from A Bluestocking
Jazz vocalist Patricia Barber, whose literary sensibility has won her a following and a Guggenheim, heads to Kuumbwa.
By Andrew Gilbert
If there's such a thing as a typical jazz vocalist, Patricia Barber doesn't fit the profile. It's not her considerable skill as a pianist that sets her apart. Dena DeRose is fully as hip a self-accompanist. Neither is it Barber's voice, an attractive contralto that's not particularly flexible or expressive. Rather, what distinguishes the cerebral singer/songwriter from virtually all her peers is the keen intelligence of her original material, informed by her literary ambition.
Barber arrives in the Bay Area with her working quartet for an SFJAZZ performance on Saturday at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre and a Monday night stint at Kuumbwa. She'll be concentrating on material from her latest Blue Note release, 2006's ambitious Mythologies, a song cycle based on verses by the Roman poet Ovid.
She has mined ancient sources in previous songs (interpolating a line from Oedipus Rex in her tune "Whiteworld," for instance), and found her way to Ovid after seeing a production of Mary Zimmerman's 2002 Tony Award-winning adaptation of the poet's epic tale based on Greek mythology, Metamorphoses. In 2003, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on the project, making her the first singer/songwriter to ever receive the prestigious grant.
"I thought, 'These characters are so rich and pliable,'" says Barber, 52, a longtime Chicago resident. "I wondered if I could write songs based on some of them. I made a proposal in my head and then I went ahead and sent it to the Guggenheim Foundation, not thinking I would get it. But I thought they should be petitioned anyway for the sake of jazz, to open up their support a little bit. And I got it! If I hadn't, I don't think I would have felt I had the luxury of doing this. It's such an unusual project."
The Guggenheim Fellowship is one sign of Barber's growing stature as a composer. Her confidence in her own work reached a milestone with her 2002 album, Verse, her first CD devoted entirely to her own songs. With its elaborate word play and poetic imagery, the album captures a panoply of moods, from the culinary seduction of "I Could Eat Your Words" to the Mose Allison-eque kiss-off "You Gotta Go Home," which telegraphs the arc of an affair with exceptional brevity ("From heaven into hell/ good riddance and farewell/ just go").
She followed Verse with Live: A Fortnight in France, an impressive session featuring several standards, such as "Laura" and "Witchcraft," and five new pieces that build on her already impressive portfolio. Barber fans appreciated the revenge fantasy "Gotcha" as a worthy addition to her repertoire of angry dressdowns. She isn't exorcising personal demons as much as tapping into the universal satisfaction at ne'er-do-wells receiving their comeuppance.
"People love angry songs," Barber says. "They don't think there are enough. I try to stay away from my own specifics. I try to become more of a fiction writer these days. It would kill me if I had to live every situation that I write about."
When she's not heaping scorn on ripe targets, Barber can be found diagnosing the ills of Western civilization, as on "Whiteworld," a searing indictment of imperialism. "I have institutions in the West to make institutions in the East," she sings. "I historically revise with Deconstructionist ease."
"Writing songs is all the fun," Barber says. "I've turned that into a lifestyle. I study and read and think. I learn about cooking when I'm writing a song about cooking. It takes me a ridiculous amount of time."
In the words of one of her more celebrated antecedents, nice work if you can get it.
PATRICIA BARBER plays Monday, June 16, at 7 and 9pm at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $22-$25; 831.427.2227.
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