The Barefoot Singer

All That Jazz

Patricia Barber

Jazz singer and pianist Patricia Barber | Photo: Chris Strong

What makes a singer, a “jazz singer?” This question isn’t as easy to answer as it seems. If I say “jazz trumpeter,” you can imagine someone who improvises freely on his instrument and swings, even on slow tempo.

When it comes to singer, it becomes a bit more complicated…  Must the singer improvise with random vocables à la Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald? Then what do we do with Billie Holiday who never improvises? She was a jazz singer, no doubt! Must the singer succeed in putting a personal stamp on a song and make it his/her own? Then, Frank Sinatra can definitely be considered a jazz singer…  How about Céline Dion then? She’s personal, she makes a song “her own”…  But can Céline Dion be described as a jazz singer?!?

Well, I give up! No perfect definition of “jazz singing” is possible. Let’s instead just pretend that we know it when we hear it.

One thing is certain though, singer/pianist/composer Patricia Barber belongs to a rare category: the un-categorizable. Her voice is both cold and warm, detached and sensuous. Her style is both adventurous and close to “piano-bar.” Her material is made of originals and standards. Add also that Barber is an enigmatic person – “complex” said Porgy and Bess’ director in his presentation words – likes to do things her way and doesn’t like to rush (not only is she a slow composer, she has only made eight studio recordings in the last fifteen years).

“I probably would sell more records if I did things a different way,” she said in an interview for in 2002. “but I wouldn’t be quite happy”

She doesn’t have the hype surrounding Diana Krall, but she has managed nonetheless to build a trusty and enthusiastic audience, as demonstrated by the sold-out concert at the Porgy and Bess jazz club in Vienna on Oct. 27.

Seeing Patricia Barber in concert could be described as a peculiar experience. Constantly moving, from her (bare) feet to her face, which reveals a constant response to what’s happening around her, twisting her arms, clapping her hands, she can even interrupt her playing if she feels she isn’t going anywhere, utter a loud “sh*t!” and then switch to something new. When you see Patricia Barber and her associates in concert, you don’t sit by passively, waiting to be entertained, but witness music being created. Of course, this can only happen within a close partnership. For the concert in Vienna, Patricia Barber was with long-time musical partners guitarist Neal Alger, drummer Eric Montzka and her musical “brother” for more than 25 years, bassist Michael Arnopol.

Those who had come to hear Patricia Barber in some slightly “lounge-jazz” arrangements of standards and pop-songs must have been disappointed, as she not only played some instrumental-only selections with her by turns bluesy, percussive, modal and “Debussy-esque” piano playing, but also gave lots of room to her colleagues for extended solos. Rock-steady Arnopol, inventive and bluesy Alger and spectacular yet subtle Montzka (although the two long drum solos were a bit much for my taste). The group wasn’t afraid to turn on the heat and get busy with some loud and muscular solos.

On that evening, the group proposed a clever mix of standards (among others an atmospheric “Bemsha Swing” to open the first set and a very dynamic blues from Charles Mingus), originals and, of course, some Cole Porter’s or Cole Porter-inspired songs taken from her last album, the very successful “Cole Porter Mix” released earlier this year. About her interest for the great American songwriter, she said in 2005: “Of course my ideal would be a songwriter like Cole Porter. He spoke well to his time, but did it in the most artistic way.”

After a first set in which she seemed to be adjusting to the environment as if she had arrived just before the concert, the second set found her sultry alto voice at its best with her own composition “Snow” (with such beautiful lyrics); a magnificent “C’est magnifique” accompanied only by Neal Alger and his nylon string guitar; “You’re The Top” with clever added lyrics that hinted at her political allegiance (she actually introduced the song as something she wrote “together with Cole Porter”) and, as an encore, an atmospheric interpretation of The Doors’ anthem “Light My Fire,” to the great delight of the audience.

Patricia Barber is definitively one of today’s jazz’s strongest voices. Critics haven’t always been on her side but, slowly, diligently, patiently, she has built an oeuvre which puts her on par with Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall and fellow Chicagoan Kurt Elling. Let’s hope that her Cole Porter album, her most accessible to date, will contribute in making more and more fans appreciate her unique art.

Recommended listening: “The Cole Porter Mix” (2008), “Mythologies” (2006) “Verse” (2002) (all distributed by Blue Note Records)

This month’s highlights include:

Guitarist Bill Frisell, together with his regular musical partners on bass and drums will “accompany” silent films from the 1920s, including two from comic genius Buster Keaton on November 9 at the Konzerthaus.

Also at the Konzerthaus, on Nov. 10, French accordionist Richard Galliano with Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba together with Czech-born bassist George Mraz and drummer Clarence Penn.

Not jazz per se but close enough, The Klezmatics at the Reigen on November 10. Rooted in traditional Jewish music, the Klezmatics borrows from jazz, rock, Caribbean  music… Its leader, contagious singer Lorin Sklamberg, will make you sing and dance in no time…

Borrowing from Italian folk music and jazz… and tango… and bossa nova…, singer and guitarist Gianmaria Testa and trumpeter Paolo Fresu on Nov. 25 at the Sargfabrik.


 Jean-Pascal Vachon is a free-lancing musicologist. He teaches music at Webster University and gives lectures on the history of music in Vienna. In addition, he also contributes texts and works as a translator for the Swedish classical label, BIS.

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