She finds the key to Greek myths

Boston Globe, September 17, 2006

NEW YORK—Icarus flew too close to the sun. Orpheus unwisely looked back. Persephone was tricked by Hades. These and other Greek myths portray the aspirations and foibles of the human condition with such clarity that artists have returned to them for centuries, a creative feedstock that cannot be depleted.

Now add to the roster of artistic treatments “Mythologies,” the compelling new album by Patricia Barber and her quartet, who visit Scullers Thursday and Friday. In 11 vignettes of literary jazz tinged with rock ‘n’ roll feeling, Barber, a Chicago pianist-singer with a cool tone and cerebral method, gives new life to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” with thought-provoking interpretations of the poet’s timeless character sketches.

Barber gives a clipped introduction—”We have some things from Greek myth for you”—during a recent weekend set at the Jazz Standard here. She begins a song vamping at the piano, bent over the instrument in a kind of mystical union before the band kicks in. Her hair obscures the sight of her face, and it seems that her cheek might graze the keys.

The set is short but soaring. Lifted by Barber’s steady piano and guitarist Neal Alger’s edgy Stratocaster, the interpretations hit home lyrically and musically. “Whiteworld,” her take on the Oedipus story, leaves no room for doubt with its denunciation of conquest and the arrogance of power. “Icarus,” which weaves in the image of a young Nina Simone performing her first gig, becomes an exhilarating rock paean to creative risk-taking. “The Moon,” a Barber solo, is a moody meditation on performance.

At the club the next afternoon, Barber locates a snifter and pours herself a short cognac, which she sips sparingly during a conversation. She unfolds her lanky frame onto a corner banquette. Some of that odd physicality follows her offstage the restless fingers, a slight air of distraction but soon she relaxes. If her demeanor sets her apart from the stereotypical image of a jazz chanteuse, she says, there’s a simple explanation. “Number one, I’m a musician’s musician,” she says of her style of playing to her band more than the audience. “Number two, I’m not much of a girl singer. And number three, I have stage fright, so I have to look away from the audience.”

A conversation with Barber is a literate, wide-ranging affair, all the more so given the nature of the new album. Homer, Sophocles, Petrarch, Dante, Shakespeare, Schubert, Verdi, Wagner, and various obscure English poets make appearances. So do OutKast and Eminem. Barber’s is an open, quirky, and omnivorous mind.

It was this intellectual curiosity that led Barber to Ovid in the first place, via a theater production, originally staged in 1998, of “Metamorphoses,” by director and fellow Chicagoan Mary Zimmerman. “It was just fun and lovely, and it inspired me to pick up the book,” Barber says. “And when I picked up the book I thought, this is going to be incredibly difficult to read, but it was quite the opposite. It was funny, smart. I just flew through the book, and I loved it. That was the epiphany.”

In Ovid’s less-is-more sketches, Barber found that the characters of myth, whom we often think of as established for all time, are in fact quite open to interpretation. “The characters were just jumping off the pages. And I could see why composers and librettists have used it for centuries, because Ovid drew the characters very thinly. He tends to careen from one to the other, these brilliantly conceived skeletal ideas. After that, as far as I’m concerned, it’s artistic license, you can do whatever you want. So it occurred to me that I could write a song cycle about this.”

By crystallizing a huge volume of material in a succint, poetic form, Ovid plays a special role in the transmission of myth.

“Ovid is the summum [bonum] of all earlier myth-writing,” says Alison Keith, an Ovid scholar and professor of classics at the University of Toronto. “He’s this astonishing reader. It’s a really inviting text that leaves room for others to play with.”

Barber was aware from the start that her idea was ambitious perhaps too ambitious. She felt daunted by the research it would require, and she couldn’t think of a comparable jazz project. On what she calls a “wild idea,” she applied for a Guggenheim Foundation grant to develop the project, and, to her considerable surprise, received it.

If anything, the award, which enabled her to focus exclusively on her project for a year, gave her a sense of artistic and professional responsibility to work as hard as she could. She delved into the great composers and poets, along with academic studies on Ovid and his characters. “I took it quite, quite seriously and I did the best work that I was capable of,” she says. “So I learned a lot about poetic technique, harmonic technique. I figured if I could enrich jazz, I was going to enrich it with great technique.”

Close attention to Barber’s lyrics reveals the depth of her preoccupation with form. “Morpheus” is a perfectly structured Shakespearean sonnet. “Pygmalion” borrows an unusual rhyme scheme from an obscure English poet. The fine points may not all come through in live performance, but each song is a little poetic gem, no two alike.

In developing “Mythologies,” Barber was careful to avoid the many prior retellings of the stories by the likes of Rilke or Cocteau in poetry, music, theater, and film. “I didn’t look at them,” she says. “I didn’t want to be intimidated, and I also didn’t want to be influenced.”

Instead, she drew her most enduring lessons from Ovid and the characters themselves. “Every single one of these characters acts from great passion,” she says. “And it made me look around and wonder why we drug ourselves, why there aren’t more passionate love affairs and arguments. In Italy, you’ll see a couple arguing at the table, just arguing. Have your argument! What writing `Mythologies’ made me realize is that the most interesting human behavior is based on great passion.”

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