Toronto
4 min

Cool blue

The colours of jazz velvet

Breaking it down. Jazz artist Patricia Barber has her Toronto debut this week. Credit: Jimmy Katz

For someone who once said that “becoming a jazz musician is a stupid thing for a smart woman to do,” Patricia Barber shows no signs of quitting this jazz thing. With the release of her fourth CD, Modern Cool, last summer, the Chicago-based singer, composer and pianist has quietly consolidated her status as one of the finest jazz musicians to come out of North America recently.



Barber, who has been enjoying a cult following in Chicago since 1984, is spreading the gospel of Modern Cool in Toronto with a long-overdue gig at the Top Of The Senator this week.



Critics have had a hard time pinning down Barber’s musical style, using terms as different as saloon singer, torch, modern classical and pop. Barber, however, has a definite idea of what her music is.



“I would it define it as jazz,” she says. “I’m going to insist that my years of sucking in smoke and playing for $100 a night entitle me to assert that this is jazz and this is what it sounds like in 1999.”



And though Barber cites Gershwin and Porter as idols, occasionally covering their standards in her live set, she is more interested in expanding the vocabulary of jazz – musically and lyrically. Gershwin would spin in his grave if he heard some of these lyrics: “I like French philosophy/ deconstructive obscurity/ formalized, canonized, and dignified by the university.”



But it’s all part of Patricia Barber’s world. Modern Cool is infused with fascination with the intellectual legacy of the twentieth century. After the critical success of her previous release, Cafe Blue, Barber – a double major in classical music and psychology and the daughter of a trumpet player with the Glen Miller Band – went back to school to pursue her masters in jazz pedagogy and twentieth-century culture.



“I’ve been fascinated with the experiment of this century, the way it began and the way it’s ending and the idealism throughout the century – trying on all these different political applications: modernism, communism, capitalism, socialism.”



But Barber’s music is far from a musical version of Modern Theory 101. At its heart, a range of human relationships, stories and feelings are conveyed through the splendour of her velvety voice and in a musical style that combines both intimacy and aloofness. “What I’m going for is the tension between the two. When you hold in a lot of emotion, there’s a certain tension there.”



There’s also a great deal of humour and irony in her choices of material, especially cover versions, admitting that she likes “teasing” her lesbian audience. She previously brought lesbian fans to hysterics with her version of the Temptations’s “My Girl,” but in her new CD she takes things a little further with the Paul Anka-penned hit for Tom Jones, “She’s A Lady.”



“It is such a perverse choice,” she admits, laughing. “The lyrics are so old fashioned; it was an arranging challenge. It’s just hysterical that a woman would be singing this way about another woman.”



Barber, who describes herself as a homebody, has been with her partner, photographer Valerie Booth, for more than 10 years. She’s grateful to have this stability in her life. “I don’t think you need to have a long time lover, but you do need something stable. I can’t imagine if this is all you had – the hotels and the career. This is just not enough.”



Like many jazz musicians, Barber talks about the taxing demands of the jazz life, far removed from the romanticized image of smokey joints and stiff drinks in the early hours of the morning. “It’s a very hard lifestyle. I pay my own health insurance. If I get sick, who pays my bills? There’s no security in it – you suck in smoke, the hours are a killer, travelling’s a killer.”



It’s also a very macho environment where few women, let alone lesbians, make it. “There’s a machismo about jazz because it’s so difficult as a music. It takes years and years of practice and determination. And that kind of achievement in and of itself is usually a male domain.” When I point out that female jazz vocalists do well in jazz, she quickly replies: “They always seem to marry the guys.”



On the bright side, Barber points out that within the jazz world, homophobia is slowly becoming less noticeable. Perhaps because there are more out artists now – US-based Andy Bey and Winnipeg’s Marilyn Lerner, for example.



Although a very political person who has been out for 20 years, Barber says that her sense of what she can do for the gay cause is to be “a little bit blase about it…. I think that gay people need that kind of a role model, as well as the more outspoken political being.”



Barber is grateful for the support of her lesbian fans – a fact she stresses in no uncertain terms during our conversation. Yet she prefers her audiences mixed: gay and straight, old and young, black and white. “I love the fact that they’re all mixed up together. I think that’s good for everybody. I don’t like the compartmentalization of things.”



She is also aware that her songs deal with subjects touchy to some lesbians. “Touch Of Trash,” the opening track in Modern Cool, is about the power physical beauty holds on all of us – something that Barber believes many lesbians do not want to admit.



“It’s specifically about somebody being captivated by the power of a beautiful woman sitting at the bar. And ready to throw her or his life absolutely away just to get close to it for one night.”



Barber laughs, “This is about as popular as Camille Paglia.”



Another song that stands out is “Silent Partner,” which Barber describes as a “woman’s song” because it discusses “the person outside, absolutely, blissfully enslaved. It’s about pleasure and pain. I think that if one hasn’t felt that at some point in their lives, they’re missing something. That kind of sublime torture. That passion that intellectually you know is not good for you but you keep going back and back.”



It would be all too tempting to jump to conclusions about Barber’s private life from her lyrics. “Like a writer, at this point in my life, I have to take on fictional characters, otherwise I wouldn’t survive,” Barber says, in a give-me-a-break tone. “If I were out there experiencing these things, I would not survive it.”



Barber’s follow up to Modern Cool is likely to be a live CD, to be recorded this summer. She would also like to do an album of standards before recording more new material. But fans may have to wait for some time. “I do need time to write, to lie on a couch and do a lot of reading, a lot of coffee and a lot of vacationing,” she says. “I always had a strange sense that there’s a lot of time – which may or may not be true.”



Patricia Barber.

$8. Thu. Sun. $12. Fri. Sat.

9:30pm. 11:30pm. Thu, Feb 25-27.

8:30pm. 10:30pm. Sun, Feb 28.

Top Of The Senator.

249 Victoria St.

(416) 364-7517.