Accomplished jazz musicians seem preordained for popular anonymity—a life as the maestro next door. It’d be easy to pass vocalist-pianist Patricia Barber on the street without recognizing her as one of the genre’s most adventurous talents—and not in an esoteric, skronky free-jazz kind of way. Barber started performing in the mid-’80s in Chicago jazz clubs; she still lives here and plays regularly at the fabled Green Mill. Although she self-released her first album, Split, in 1989, Barber didn’t really attract much attention until 1994’s Café Blue, which showcased her formidable piano skills and breathy, sensual voice. She also showed a fearlessness with original compositions in a genre that prefers endless reinterpretations of classics. Accolades have accompanied the release of her four subsequent albums—the most recent is 2004’s live disc A Fortnight In France. Barber is currently preparing to record a new album based on the tales of Roman poet Ovid, a project she started after winning a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. She recently spoke to The A.V. Club about bad reviews, winning over critics, and why she doesn’t like The Beatles.
The A.V. Club: Some Chicago critics apparently gave you a hard time when you first started performing. Do you think about that stuff any more?
Patricia Barber: [Laughs.] Actually, I don’t even know what you’re talking about, but I think all artists get a hard time at first.
AVC: So nothing really sticks out from back then?
PB: Oh, I got a review in Portland—but that was not the early days, that was the middle days—where somebody said, “To say that Patricia Barber is a bitch is an understatement.” That was the first line. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you remember when the tide started to turn?
PB: I don’t remember exactly; I don’t think one day it switched over. I think I started to come into my own when I started doing more original material, and that, I think, culminated in [1998’s] Modern Cool.
AVC: Some stories about you have suggested that doing original material actually hurt you with critics.
PB: I think at first that was accurate. I think that they expected me and wanted me to be a kind of Diana Krall, you know, doing standards. But I insisted on going my own way. I think until you’re more prolific, people don’t trust that. So at first I think it was harder. They didn’t know what to think, but as I continued along that path, they generally came my way.
AVC: But you’ve also reinterpreted a fair number of popular songs, though they aren’t necessarily from the jazz canon. Fortnight had The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and Chris Montez’s “Call Me.” Did you get any criticism for doing the “wrong” kind of covers?
PB: No, no. That’s been done in jazz. I really did that starting in 1992 when I put “My Girl” on a CD. I think I was one of the first to do that. All music now, I think, is fair game for jazz musicians to interpret, and they have been. I would consider those songs standards now. “Norwegian Wood” is a standard; “Call Me” is a standard.
AVC: But you weren’t originally a Beatles fan, right?
PB: I’m still not. I am a fan of the compositions of The Beatles, but I don’t care for their interpretation of them. But as compositions, I just think that some of them are brilliant and have become standards.
AVC: The end of “Norwegian Wood” climaxes with these power chords, and it certainly has a rock feel. Ditto for the guitar feedback in “Pieces.” Were those something you intentionally sought out, or did they just appear as you and the band played?
PB: No, I actually asked for those. It’s actually very calculated, and when we arrange the pieces, I get together with Neil [Alger, guitarist] and say, “Can you give me this, can you give me that, can you give me an R.E.M.-like sequencer? I need something on the offbeat. Can you add some distortion here?” Neil has the sensibility for it, which makes him a wonderful addition, because of how I hear it. But also, I must say, I don’t think there’s any more challenging music out there in jazz than what we’re doing.
AVC: But it’s not difficult, room-clearing free-jazz. There’s so much space in the music in “Pieces.”
PB: Right. There are certain rules I have in order to make it, like you said, less difficult, like a difficult place to enter. I would like to have people hear this dissonance, but I don’t want it to be so off-putting that they never get there to begin with. That’s actually how I hear it; that’s what’s pleasant to me. I don’t like dense, chaotic dissonance. My brain gets lost. I need something to hang onto.
AVC: At the same time, you know this isn’t the kind of thing that will sell millions of records. When did you realize that?
PB: As soon as I sat down to write music, really, with Café Blue. I just can’t think about that when I sit down to write. I don’t let myself. I actually don’t allow myself to look at sales figures. Ever. I get the general impression that I’m not selling like Norah Jones, but I don’t really pay too much attention, because I think it would corrupt me. I have a good life. I have nothing to complain about, and the music is just too interesting.