Patricia Barber wants to revitalize the Great American Songbook
Jazz singers come and go, but one thing that hasn’t changed is what they typically perform: decades-old classics by Cole Porter, George Gershwin and other notables from the so-called Great American Songbook.
Singer-songwriters have long dominated pop and rock, and Chicago jazz icon Patricia Barber, who prides herself on writing all her own tunes, has worked hard to rekindle that same tradition in contemporary jazz.
“When you compare the songwriters in pop, they’re plentiful and they’re wonderful, from Sting to Joni Mitchell to the newer songwriters,” said Barber, 57, noted for her pianism as well as her vocals. “And where are the jazz songwriters? There haven’t been any.
“Since the Great American Songbook, there has been about a 40-year lag, and if there are jazz songwriters, they’re not very good, because they’re using pop songwriting forms. So there isn’t really much of a thing called a jazz songwriter, but I’ve tried to create that and keep the bar pretty high.”
Twelve of Barber’s most recent songs can be heard on her just-released disc, “Smash,” which the Green Mill Jazz Club, Barber’s longtime home base, is celebrating with a pair of release parties Friday and Saturday.
“It will be a big weekend,” she said. “It’s always nuts.”
Barber, a Chicago native, can be heard there most Monday evenings when she is not on the road. “I tend to tour less than most jazz musicians,” she said, “because I just don’t like it, and I also have a big organic farm out here in Michigan. I take whole sections of time off the road to write music and to garden.”
Barber formerly recorded for the Blue Note label, but she was dropped when it underwent ownership changes in 2011. At the same time, she lost her longtime mentor and champion, Bruce Lundvall, the company’s former president.
“I was kind of grieving over that, and I was really enjoying taking some time off from recording every year, which I have been doing for years,” she said. “And I was looking to learn more about music, harmony and piano.”
But during the break, producer Nick Phillips unexpectedly approached her about joining the noted Concord Jazz label. Barber said no at first, but Phillips was persistent and finally won her over.
“He reminded me of Bruce Lundvall,” she said of Phillips. “He was a fan, and he knew all my music way back. He understands music very well, and the relationship felt very much the same. And, so, I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’”
On “Smash,” the first product of the new partnership, Barber goes well beyond the usual songs about love won and lost, exploring subjects ranging from the birth of stars in the cosmos to the brain injury of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
In some of the works, Barber also is experimenting with what she calls her “syllabic song series,” tunes with varying numbers of syllables per line. “The Storyteller,” for example, has four, while “Swim” has two.
“In a general way, I’d like to broaden and sophisticate the song repertoire for jazz,” Barber said. “I’ve spent 20 years studying the songwriters, and I have notebooks and notebooks of key changes and harmony and lyrics and where Cole Porter went for the bridge and even where Sting starts most of his songs.”
Performing with Barber at the Green Mill will be the band that can be heard on “Smash”: guitarist John Kregor, bassist Larry Kohut and drummer Jon Deitemyer. Famed jazz pianist Kenny Werner suggested she make the change, and it has paid off.
“I found a group I really like,” she said, “and I found a way of working with a group that I like, which is lighter, softer, more facile, so I’m really very happy with it.”
Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.