My favorite living jazz musician, and sometimes my favorite living musician, is Patricia Barber, a Chicagoan songwriter, singer, piano player, and bandleader. She’s really good at all four of those things, and an evening with her band is one of the most intense musical experiences you can track down at this point in the twenty-first century. Modern jazzbos don’t have “greatest hits” as such, but if they did, Persephone would probably be hers.
Disclosure: Here’s how deranged a fan I am. Once a year or so, I spend some surplus airline points and sneak off for a Monday evening in Chicago, where Ms Barber plays at The Green Mill (once Al Capone’s favorite bar) and you can go see her for some absurdly small amount of money; the crowd consists of about half locals and half devotees from around the world; I’ve sat next to people from Taiwan and from Slovenia. When I say “sneak” I mean I don’t tell anybody, I just fly down there, book some random hotel that has a deal, spend an evening at the Green Mill and a day walking around looking at sights, then come home. Because I’m not there to hang out with people, I’m there to listen.
Persephone is from Mythologies, a fine 2006 album that explicitly addresses the kinds of things its title might make you think it does. She’s released some fine recordings; I’m not sure Mythologies is the finest, but I can’t think of a better Barber song than Persephone.
It is totally 100% about sex: In this soft circle, Reason's slave to desire / This feels like fun / This feels like fire … As fine fine fabric slipping over your skin / This feels like silk / This feels like sin. On top of which the tune and the arrangement and the playing are all marvelous. One time in 2015 I was sitting up close at the Green Mill and in the first set the band played Persephone, which at the time I’d never heard. After they’d stopped, I spoke up and asked Patricia what that song was, and was it new? (the Green Mill is that kind of place). She laughed and said, no it was from Mythologies; I said I had lots of her records but not that one, but what a great song; she smiled and said “Thanks”. Then halfway through the second set, between songs, she said to the band: “You know, we got a nice compliment on Persephone, let’s play it again” and they did.
I’ve seen her play a big hall in a jazz-festival setting, and she was great, more polish and higher impact. But I prefer the Green Mill because you can see she feels more free, and will take the band down some very strange paths, and stretch out the solos, and take a vocal improv up over the moon. Sometimes it doesn’t work and sometimes you’ll forget to breathe.
Links · Spotify playlist. This tune on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify. As for live video, here’s Persephone on a big stage with a big band. And it’s big, fine performance. The only problem is that while there’s quite a bit of Ms Barber on YouTube, I have yet to find anything in which she stretches out on piano or even on vocal; which are the main reasons I get a plane across North America to see her.