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 Friday, 19 December 2014
Patricia Barber’s Mythologies: An Ovid for the New Millennium PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Wednesday, 06 September 2006
"Imagine if you'd never heard jazz before.... you stumbled in after work for a drink.... you might think that jazz is an Ancient Greek music.” –Patricia Barber

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Mythologies

In 2003, the Guggenheim Foundation awarded its first-ever grant to a songwriter. And Patricia Barber is not just a songwriter, but an esteemed vocalist and pianist, and perhaps the only jazz musician on the planet with the combination of intellect, spirituality and humor to pull off a musical reworking of an ancient Greek poet. Based on the stories of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Barber’s ambitious new Blue Note release, Mythologies, offers 11 original compositions, each a reflection of one of Ovid’s characters. In sum, Mythologies stands as an exceptional work melding Barber’s haunting melodic sensibility with her often dark, sometimes humorous lyrics, painting from a broad musical palette touched by post bop jazz, classical, world, pop, rock, hip hop, R&B and fusion.

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Patricia Barber © Andrea Canter

Why Ovid? “Ovid was a Roman poet who was putting a spin on Greek mythology,” says Barber. “I just couldn’t believe what a wonderful writer he was – how funny and smart and brilliant are these characters he created. He doesn’t flesh them out so I can understand why opera composers and librettists throughout history have used Ovid again and again.” Barber penned every tune, every word, bringing to the recording studio her long-standing quartet with Neal Alger on guitars, Michael Arnopol on bass, and Eric Montzka on drums, then adding the appropriately dark-toned tenor sax of Jim Gailloreto on three tracks (“The Moon,” “Morpheus” and “Phaeton”) and guest vocalists—Paul Falk and Lawrice Flowers (“Persephone”); Flowers, Ariel Watkins, and Walter Mitchell (“Phaeton”); and Mitchell, Grazyna Auguscik, and the Choral Thunder ensemble for the finale (“The Hours”).

The music, not unlike other works by Barber, defies classification by genre, despite its underlying appeal as a modern jazz suite. Sometimes there is indeed a swing feel (particularly on the opening track, “The Moon” and the mildly bluesy “Pygmalion”), and Barber’s phrasing, inflection and understated melodic piano have unmistakable roots in jazz. Yet there is also a strong fusion thread running through much of the music (“Hunger,” “Icarus,” “Orpheus” and “White World”) as well a soulful R&B vibe (“Persephone,” “Narcissus”). “Phaeton” comes off like a New Age gospel hymn wedded to a hip-hop groove, while the finale, “The Hours,” shimmers with classical underpinnings. Few musicians could make this all hang together as a single song cycle, and for the most part, Barber succeeds magnificently.

Although “White World” has been performed frequently in the past two years, the cycle opens with an earlier composition, “The Moon” which Barber previously recorded on Verse (2002). She notes that “I am fascinated with the moon, how writers have written about the moon, and how poets have been moonstruck…The Moon, as character here, is a performer, broken-hearted, but she still has to dress up and step onto the universal stage every night. If she doesn’t, it stays dark down here and all Chaos will ensue. This is her dilemma.” Barber introduces the track, and indeed the cycle itself, with a recording of a taped solo piano performance. “It is a distancing technique; it is there to remind you that this story is being told by a performer and that we’re all performers on the universal stage,” she notes. From this piano drone and eerie sounds from bass and sax, her first vocalizations slide over keyboard tinkles, as if drifting across time dimensions into the 21st century from Ovid’s era. Barber’s haunting voice fits the ambience perfectly, as if coming from both far away and inside your head at the same time; Arnopol deftly places some bubbly but ominous tones. After the balladic first verse, the rhythm shifts into a higher but equally ominous gear with a strong pulse from Montzka and more swinging keyboard lines from Barber. Alger, sounding like a Fender Rhodes, and guest saxman Gailloreto (think, Tim Berne meets Kenny Garrett) twist the lines into a funky groove, but with a lyric as haunting as the melody (it is after all a love song), “I can’t shine without you.”

Barber notes that “Morpheus” is one of her personal favorites, “a prayer to the God of Sleep to send his son, Morpheus, the God of Dreams.” A slow ballad of sleepless wandering, she sings over her own simple piano line and a steady pulse from Arnopol, with a mournfully lovely solo from Gailloreto. Barber’s very lyrical piano solo is touched with a Fred Hersch elegance that melts into her vocal. Her words, “steadfast and sweet,” aptly describe the bass accompaniment.

"Pygmalion” imagines a beautiful statue coming to life, says Barber, by asking the universal questions, “Can I will you to love me? Can I will the fantasy to life?” Her description of the stone figure, a “possessor of bone chilling beauty” also describes much of Barber’s music. At ballad tempo, initially her piano is the only instrumentation, her solemn chords the only foundation in the first chorus. Bass and percussion enter to lead an instrumental interlude washed in blues. Alger’s guitar comes forward on the next vocal chorus, along with the slow pacing from bass and brushes.

“Hunger” illustrates Barber’s flair for dark humor and irony. The lyric here will send you quickly to the refridge as she evokes one food metaphor after another in describing the insatiability of desire (“you can never lick the plate clean…”) and pokes fun at the “glamour” of our thin-oriented society. Her first vocal passage resounds in tandem over Alger’s reverberating lines before they slide into a funky chorus and an almost tribal groove. Alger takes a fusion-flavored solo full of rambunctious sound effects.

Barber dedicates her version of the “Icarus” legend to the late Nina Simone, as both myth and real-life legend “know that only by taking a big risk will you ever fly.” Barber’s clever lyrics address risk taking and pushing boundaries, “rising over the wall, falling out of the middle away from us all…” There’s a rock flavor to the background instrumentals led by Alger, more clearly delineated in the band’s interlude with a heavy bass beat and splashy percussion enhanced with some hand drumming.

"Orpheus” was written as a sonnet. An ode to loneliness and loss, Barber notes that it is “based on one of the most beautiful stories every written. He was a musician appealing to Hades to let his love, Eurydice, live again. I tried to find a contemporary angle – so my modern day Orpheus is a gardener. This is a sad, sad song.” Musically resembling a retro rock ballad, it begins with solo piano accompaniment, a dirge then brightened somewhat by Alger’s rock-informed phrases that screech over Barber’s funereal chords and whatever Montkza hits to create a solid punch.

Not satisfied with the story of “Persephone” as told by Ovid, Barber re-examined the character through Homer’s accounting and Dante’s description of Hell to create her own myth. “She is the only god who can traverse the upper- and underworlds. She becomes Virgil leading an angel through hell, trying to corrupt her as she is showing signs of weakness. She will use anything at her disposal to get what she wants. It’s a song of seduction.” Guest vocalist Lawrice Flowers, who compared to Barber has a more conventional but still convincing voice (Carla Cook-ish), takes the first verse and is joined by Paul Falk on chorus. Barber, too, seems to be present on the chorus. There’s an R&B vibe on this track, reinforced by the vocal harmonies. Alger leads the instrumental force, imparting an other-worldly celestial mesh while the lyrics, “This feels like love, this feels like sin,” speak for themselves.

Using her own sexual orientation as a point of interpretation, Barber studied the legend of “Narcissus,” concluding it to be “slightly moralistic in its judgment of the danger of ‘Narcissistic’ love as being homosexual. Being gay myself, I thought, why not embrace that idea? If homosexual love is Narcissistic, and you don’t know whether you’re making love to yourself or to the other, how much fun is that?” The result is a simple love song about feeling “hopelessly smitten,” written in 10/4. “It could be the gay wedding song,” notes Barber. Gailloreto returns with a nice improvisation, the groove again generally feeling more R&B on the CD’s shortest track.

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Mythologies

White World” is already one of Barber’s most popular compositions, the first written after she received the Guggenheim and included on her last release, Live: A Fortnight in France. The only song in the cycle not named for an Ovid character, the story is about Oedipus. Notes Barber, “I read the Sophocles version of the story: ‘I came to a juncture of two roads’ – the bridge of the song is actually Sophocles verbatim. There, an old man hit him. He not only hit him back but he ‘had to kill them all.’ Given historical and current events, the song wrote itself.” This is Barber’s signature style—snappy clever lyrics that have their own rhythm. Alger buzzes under the vocal and swift-paced basslines. The band's interlude is full of funk and fusiony percussion, reminiscent of the instrumental work by Hiromi’s trio. Montzka has his most elaborate drum solo of the recording, with all sorts of weaponry unleashed, challenging the “White World” with a primal deluge.

Barber notes that “Phaeton” is “another arrogant young man – he thinks he can drive his father’s chariot – the chariot of the Sun. But he can’t – he doesn’t have the skill or the maturity so he ends up scorching the earth until there are very few species left… It has a lot of obvious modern-day parallels.” A folk/rock groove permeates the track although the tenor sax solo gives it some jazz feel as well. For a hip-hop final segment, Barber enlisted some “wonderful kids from the Chicago Children’s Choir to rap a list of endangered species over the final section of the song.” This track probably brings together too many musical elements in its 5+ minutes, although a careful listen to the lyrics gives logic to this potpourri.

The cycle closes with “The Hours.” Ovid’s two goddesses “are everywhere, watching. They simply watch us as we squirm and scream out in pain and they do nothing but mark time. They never lift a finger. So the song is railing against their callousness, and it is an homage to human courage in the face of Death.” A Barber trademark composition of somber darkness and haunting lyrics, her piano carries a classical tone, while the chorus of Choral Thunder and guest vocalist Grazyna Auguscik add to the background arrangement by Bryan Johnson. Arnopol and Alger contribute a quirky lyricism, but for me the magic spell is broken by the soul vibe of the choir. Says Barber, “ ‘The Hours’ acts as a matching bookend to ‘The Moon,’ and says, ‘this performance [is], in fact, last, and sweetly in vain, so let me entertain you one more time.’” I would have preferred that the bookends matched more closely with just Barber providing the entertainment.

My few quibbles boil down to a matter of preference for Barber’s quartet over the expanded vocal backgrounds. Overall, Mythologies proves again that one does not need to follow the mainstream herd to create memorable melodies and powerful lyrics. Barber is as complete an artist as one can imagine, one who has innate talent and an ever-present striving to find stories of timeless, universal substance that speak to the dilemmas of modern life, tales presented in a broad musical vocabulary. From Ovid to Barber, Mythologies connects ancient and modern spirits.

The alluring liquidity of Barber's vocals and the chic understatement of her pianism give the music its continuity, while the high craft of her lyrics bring it focus and purpose.” –Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune



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