Jazz iconoclast Patricia Barber has a six-show run at Blues Alley slated for this weekend. She’s touring behind her newest album “Smash” (Concord), which was released in January. We spoke with the 57-year-old Chicago resident (and native) by phone last week from her summer home in Michigan. Her comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: The iPad seems to be increasingly replacing printed scores and lead sheets and I know you use one when you perform. Have you ever had it freeze up or die on you when you’re playing?
PATRICIA BARBER: No, it never has. I always carry a back-up flash drive with all my sheet music on it so at any hotel I could print out anything I needed, but I’ve never had any problem. It saves me a lot of weight. I don’t have to carry all those charts around.
BLADE: Jazz is, of course, more improvisatory than pop. To what degree do you think through your vocal inflections or piano variations before you go on stage versus what happens in the moment?
BARBER: I’ve never given any thought to that. It’s just part of improv. I never give any thought to trying to make it sound like the record. That’s for pop musicians to do. I just have a good sense of harmony and good technique. I practice a lot.
BLADE: Do you spend a lot of time in Michigan?
BARBER: Well, a lot in the summer. I stopped touring in the summer quite a few years ago. It’s just too hot and crowded. I have a big organic garden here. So we feed people, swim in the lake. It’s just wonderful. (Partner) Martha (Feldman) is an academic so she has summers off.
BLADE: Do you hate to leave for your upcoming dates?
BARBER: I get nostalgic but not right now. I’m feeling pretty good. Things have slowed down so it’s not the usual sense of dread I usually feel this time of year.
BLADE: Do you tour with your own piano?
BARBER: No. Most jazz musicians don’t unless it’s some kind of electronic.
BLADE: How do you ensure the quality is going to be where you need it to be?
BARBER: It’s all in the contracts. It’s all very finicky, that it has to be a certain quality type and tuning.
BLADE: How many of the players who travel with you played on “Smash”?
BARBER: Two out of the four. We’re sort of mixing it up. It doesn’t mean they weren’t good.
BLADE: Obviously you love music but I also sense some ambivalence about your musical career in other interviews you’ve given. Is that fair to say? You seem to have a love-hate relationship with the whole thing.
BARBER: My recording career, no. That’s fun and easy. Touring is very difficult so yeah, I think you hit it right on the head. Well, let me re-phrase that. Certainly not this sweet little tour to D.C. or a 10-day tour to Europe. But I’m pretty much done with the grueling 12-hour spans getting to a city.
BLADE: Now that “Smash” has been out for a while and had time to gestate, how do you feel about it? Is it hard to assess how well something worked when you’re still close to it? Has it been hard to find a way for it to live in a live setting?
BARBER: I still love it. I don’t know that my feelings have changed at all. I’m still finding ways to transpose, as you put it, to the stage. With jazz, you can’t stick to one performance so I’m purposefully trying not to sound like the recording. It’s interesting what you can do with a quartet vs. a trio. It’s slightly different each time. But I’m still in love with it.
BLADE: Is “Devil’s Food” a political statement?
BARBER: It’s my first gay song … It’s definitely coming from the DOMA political situation. That whole court case was coming up and my feelings about it. It isn’t obviously gay until you’re listening to it. It’s fun to watch people’s faces because it turns into a disco song. Jazz is usually very serious but this is just gay fun.
BLADE: Do you feel the press has focused too much on your sexual orientation throughout your career?
BARBER: Yes. It’s the first thing on Wikipedia. I’m a lesbian jazz musician. To me, that’s not a category but OK. I’m hoping as we’ve all grown older that being gay continues becoming just part of the normal fabric of everything and people will focus on the music more but you have to remember years ago, we weren’t anywhere close to where we are now on that.
BLADE: You were out pretty early on though. Were you just pretty much organically out or was it a conscious decision at some point to be out?
BARBER: I had a whole issue with that. I was working at a pretty famous club in Chicago that was very popular. We had lines around the block and I worked there six nights a week with a trio. And yeah, at the beginning — this was many, many years ago — I wondered if they would have hired me if I’d been out. It was such a hetero scene there so I definitely worried about it but then I came out to my boss and … he thought it was sexy and kind of cool in a sort of perverted way. But it hasn’t ended up affecting my audience at all. They’ve always been mixed — straight, gay, black, white, young, old.
BLADE: You’re playing six shows in D.C. Is it designed to be something people can see over a few nights or is it pretty much the same show?
BARBER: I don’t expect that people would see it twice. That would be unusual. It will pretty much be the same set.
BLADE: Do jazz fans bring expectations with them the way people expect pop acts to always do certain hits?
BARBER: I think they want to hear stuff from “Smash” and they sometimes have old favorites they want to hear. Sometimes they send me notes. If it’s easy to do, sure, I’ll do it. I have a huge repertoire by now. I’m happy to try it if I can or if I just want to sit and play “Autumn Leaves” for an hour and a half, I’ll do that.