A conversation with Marc Chénard
Marc Chénard: Earlier this year, there was an article in Downbeat concerning the 70 years of Blue Note and several artists were asked, you included, what their favourite album on the label was, and you chose "Portrait of Sheila" by Sheila Jordan. In it you extol her qualities as a singer and how that has influenced you, but I was wondering if it also had to do with the very spare and intimate setting of the album, because that is very much part of your own aesthetic.
Patricia Barber: Well, that's true. But I hadn't thought of that. I don't usually think things like that in those terms; I leave that to the professionals. And when I don't get a certain kind of intimacy, I always notice it. If my voice is not close miked in concert and it doesn't sound like me, the only thing left for me to say is to please make it sound like me. They can hear my recordings and I leave it up to them to get it right.
M.C.: I noticed that you are listed as the producer of your latest recording "The Cole Porter Mix".
P.B.: I have produced all of my recordings after "Distortion of Love" (produced by Brian Bacchus).
M.C.: You must be the exception here, because singers always have producers and A&R men calling the shots.
P.B.: I was certainly asked to do that in the beginning, but refused.
M.C.: I gather it must have taken time to convince a major label to accept you controlling your own product?
P.B.: Yes, we did have some, how should I say… discussions, and not just with Blue Note, but also with Richard Seidel at Verve and even with Dreyfus in France, where they were even lobbing insults at me because I was not allowing them to let them do the producing. It was quite a struggle in the beginning, but I've been calling all the shots ever since. Actually my lawyer drew up a contract I've been using ever since and which follows with me wherever I go. It says clearly that I have complete artistic control on what I do. Sure the record company has to be agreeable, and I have to say Blue Note has been wonderful with me, and likewise for Premonition before that. That's why I just didn't sign with anyone else than Blue Note or Premonition before that, because the boss at Premonition just let me do whatever I wanted to.
M.C.: That really set the precedent for you.
P.B.: Yes. I was determined to have something very individual to contribute and thought I could best do it that way, on my own terms.
M.C.: In looking at your bio, music came into your life very early because your father was a musician himself, a saxophonist who played in big bands. I guess that paved the way for your own career.
P.B.: Yes it did.
M.C.: Does that mean then that it was your intention to become a professional music from a very early age?
P.B.: Yes, it did. But I also knew where I wanted to do it, right here in Chicago.
M.C.: That's interesting, because we all know the old story of a young jazz player heading to New York to make the big times. Were you ever tempted to make the move there?
P.B.: Well, yes, maybe in my early years in Chicago, but not after that. I've had such wonderful work here, not to forget a close group of friends and family. There are trappings of success that have never interested me enough to give up other things, like my artistic independence and my
M.C.: Do you then believe that remaining in Chicago has enabled you to maintain that independence?
P.B.: I do. I think the people who work in Chicago (and that is my personal feeling), develop a certain sound because they have that ability to work regularly, something I find more difficult to do in New York.
M.C.: The New York scene is also a very competitive one. Do you think that it's not so much the case in Chicago, where it could be more cooperative or collaborative?
P.B.: Not to me, because the music business is tough wherever you are. There is much more supply than demand, so that tilts everything. Because it's very competitive, you have to be very good, but it's like that in every city. A lot of the New York venues are taken up by people from out of town, from Paris or wherever, which means there is not a music work available for local musicians.
M.C.: Going back to your own beginnings, did you family encourage you to go into music?
P.B.: I was encouraged the whole time. In fact, I really knew what I wanted to do from the time I was five years old. But it was more a question of knowing if it would be the smart decision to take. In high school, I was into music and knew what I wanted to do and where. But in college I started asking myself if it was really a good life decision. There were second thoughts along the way, but I got two degrees as a way to escape, if need be. I studied music and psychology, the latter was a general one which could allow me to go into law or medical school.
M.C.: Let's turn to music now. As a vocalist, we mentioned at the beginning Sheila Jordan and I'm sure you've listened to plenty more, but if you had to name three important influences, who would they be?
P.B.: Lets' see, there's Shirley Horn… then Elis Regina (a very strong influence on me) and Peggy Lee.
M.C.: And as for your main instrument, the piano, whom would you name there?
P.B.: Everybody thinks of Bill Evans, but Chick Corea has also been important to me. He's the one who pulled me into jazz for good in college, because I found it exciting what he was doing at that time with Return to Forever, that appealed to the pop rock side of me. Kenny Werner is also one of my current favourites, as is Jacky Terrasson because he's brought back the rhythm to the piano.
M.C.: On your records, everything is very concise, but do you like to stretch out more in a live setting, like all jazz artists for that matter. On YouTube there are several examples of that, too. I gather you must have a different mindset when it comes to recordings than to concerts?
P.B.: Definitely. A recording is a prototype; it's the thing that will go down in history. Now as far as I'm concerned, I allow myself to do whatever the hell I want to do in concert and for whatever amount of time. If we start one song and it lasts 30 minutes… well, I find that is in part what the public paid their tickets for: to see you improvise and stretch out on the stuff they've heard you play on in an already recorded version.
M.C.: When not on the road, you have your weekly Monday night gig at the Green Mill, something you've been doing for ages now.
P.B.: Yes, but I don't like doing Monday nights, it's just that things have worked out for me like that. Monday is tough, because I may be flying back from somewhere on the weekend, or attended a family event, yet I have to work right at the beginning of the week. It's just the way it is, it's how I started and everyone knows where I am, so the owner of the place and me don't want to change it.
M.C.: With a regular gig like that, I gather the place must be your testing ground for new material, if not a recording project.
P.B.: Always. It's my laboratory to test out new songs. If, for instance, there's a funny element to a song, and it don't get a laugh, then I take it back home to make it work better. I've also been recording my gigs there; I started paying the soundman there to do it for me. I literally have hundreds of recordings of myself and cannot possibly sift through them, it's an impossible task, really.
M.C.: It's also interesting to note that you've maintained a pretty steady group of musicians over the years, your bassist Michael Arnopol has been on board pretty well since your debut. So it must stand to reason that working with these musicians over such a long period has been an important factor in defining your own sound.
P.B.: It has been. They're like wonderful tools I can work with and all of them are great individual musicians. It's easy for me now, because they all intuitively understand what I'm going for. If we do something differently, then we talk it over at a rehearsal. Of course, they know I don't want 36 solo choruses after the narrative. But you'd be surprised. Sometimes, when someone sits in, it's like, I'm singing a song, and here you could think of Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee or anybody else you've ever heard, so I tell some of the story, then it segues into a kind of improvisational envelope, after which I continue the story, which is what the audience wants to hear. But you'd be surprised: there are some jazz musicians who don't understand that, so they'll go on for 36 choruses, and I'll just say to them: "You're fired." That's so stupid.
M.C.: So you have people sitting in at your Monday night gigs.
P.B.: Oh yes, I've had plenty of guests, but I just don't let them sit in like that, I specifically invite them to see if I can have a good connection with them. To me it's a way of stretching out some. Kenny Werner recently told me that I was looking very comfortable in my playing on stage and that the group sounds great, but felt it was time to shake it up. (Laughs) I found that to be an interesting take on things. But then again, Keith Jarrett doesn't do that, nor does Pat Metheny, although he does have several bands going on in parallel. That's good, too, and I work on other projects, too.
M.C.: And what are these exactly?
P.B.: There are some 'classical-esque' things I'm doing these days. Just as you called, I'm writing a song for a movie, the second time I'm doing this kind of thing. I will also be singing for the sound track, it's conceived for a specific scene. I also wrote and performed more of my own music for a very beautiful film called "Grey and Black and White" in which I also play the part of a singer. Just recently, I wrote a couple of songs for Jim Gailloreto's string quartet here in Chicago, I'm singing, too, and there is a saxophone part to it as well. I'm very excited about that because it came out quite beautifully. Jim asked me, and both of us were so thrilled about the results. He found the timbre of my voice blended so nicely with his group, so he asked if I wanted to continue with this project, and only gladly accepted his offer. I now have this feeling of stretching out into other areas.
M.C.: I also noticed, at least on your recordings, that you are one vocalist who really doesn't scat.
P.B.: In concert, I do that a little bit, like on some of the Brazilian things, with an odd item here and there. I used to scat my ass off at one time, when I was younger, but since I'm able to play the piano… I notice that a lot of piano playing singers, like Shirley Horn or Diana Krall don't scat much either, and much less than singers who are not also instrumentalists. I think it has to do with the fact that we get to explore improvisation on an instrument, so we don't have to do that with our voice. To my ears, scatting can be a little bit corny, but if it is done right it can be done beautifully because you use your voice as an instrument. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Michael, my bassist, says: "You should have a license to scat." It's a very dangerous thing. When it's bad, it's really, really bad.
M.C.: I gather you've been focusing on the music of your September 2008 release ("The Cole Porter Mix") in your recent tours. Will that also be the case for your upcoming Canadian performances in Ottawa, Quebec City and Montreal?
P.B.: I guess that would be appropriate. But you never know what I am going to do.
M.C.: Which means you don't have a set program that you take out on tour.
P.B.: I've had a kind of rotating set going since the Cole Porter record came out, and that's what we have been doing, but we also throw in a couple of others things not to get too bored. As I said, you just never know.
M.C.: You like to keep surprises in store.
P.B.: Yes, but I do that for my own sake.
M.C. There's a clip of you playing an instrumental number, Mingus's "Nostalgia in Time Square".
P.B.: Yeah, we've been playing that at the Green Mill for a long time. We have such a huge repertoire to work with.
M.C.: By the way, there is another singer pianist who has even done a couple of strictly instrumental albums, Harry Connick Jr. Has it ever occurred to you doing a record like that?
P.B.: Oh my God! I would love to give up the vocals for a year just like Harry Connick. For me it's not only a question of resting my voice, but resting my soul. Singing is so intimate. I get weary of bearing my soul. I look at my musicians and envy them; they can chew gum, pick up their instruments and play. Singing is completely different because of that intimacy. I have a feeling everybody is peering at my soul, they know exactly how I'm feeling, if I'm sad, happy or what no. There's just such a lack of privacy.
M.C.: So what about that idea of a purely instrumental album?
P.B.: I don't think anyone would let me. I mean, I could do it on my own, but I don't think anyone would care. When you have people like Kenny Werner or Keith Jarrett, who would care. I think I'm becoming a really good pianist and can hold my own in concert, but you can't get anybody to care about the best pianist on earth right now.
M.C.: Speaking of recordings, have you been thinking about your next one?
P.B.: Yeah, but I'm a little bit stumped. I have various new songs written, like for movies and other things, so I could just compile them, but as far as a theme, I'm unsure at this time, but kind of want to be. No one has asked or forced me to decide about what I want to do next, and am glad about that, too. So I'm being given the time to find the proper inspiration. And I don't know what Blue Note is going through, like every other record company for that matter, what with all the changes in the marketplace. They may well be going through problems of their own.
M.C.: But in spite of these difficult times in the music business, things are going well for you, your recent touring schedule is proof of that.
P.B.: Not now. It could be very full, but I'm stepping back at this time, to get involved in other projects. I just came off a European tour last week. We're very popular over there: in fact we even had sold out crowds everywhere we went, from Madrid to Zagreb. To me it has nothing to do with the success or enjoyment we get from it to keep on touring, it's more a need for me to take a break from all that. It's tough when you go from one country to another on a daily basis, so I want to just draw back and explore these other areas of music, and time is running out. I mean, if you keep doing the same things every day and all of the time, suddenly you don't have any time left to get to those things in areas of music you would like to further explore. Jim Gailloreto asked me to write an art song, and I now have a couple of these that are a little bit different for jazz; in fact, they are quite a departure for me when I sing them on stage, and the effect is quite magical. My main interest now is to spend more time on composing than hitting the performance trail.
M.C.: You also seem to be a quite avid photographer; you have a whole section of pictures on your Website. Does photography inspire you musically?
P.B.: I love the camera. I don't know if it does inspire me musically, but it makes me so happy. It's not my job, so I don't have to do it, it's free of anxiety, and different kinds of cameras really interest me. And with everybody taking pictures digitally, it's kind of promiscuous, but I still
love doing it.
Conversation taken on April 10.
Patricia Barber in concert :
Ottawa International Jazz Festival (National Library of Canada), July 3.
Salle Françoys-Bernier (Quebec City), July 9.
Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (Théâtre Maisonneuve), July 10.