Patricia Barber on the air: Welcome to 'MusicHeads' – Chicago Tribune
We already knew she could sing, play the piano and write hyperliterate, musically sophisticated songs.
But can Chicagoan Patricia Barber host a radio show? More specifically, can she preside over a program designed not merely to entertain listeners but to lead them deep into the nitty gritty of how jazz is made?
Can Barber, in other words, illuminate the meaning, context and syntax of jazz during a series of one-hour radio shows?
She's going far out on a limb to find out with "MusicHeads," an ambitious, meticulously produced program launching 9 p.m. Wednesday on WDCB-FM 90.9. The subsequent installments in the pilot series will air at the same time Jan. 21 and 28, each addressing a particular musical theme.
I listened twice to a near-final cut of the opening program — "What Is Swing?" — and it's clear that Barber has set a rather high bar for herself. The question she addresses, after all, is so fundamental to the meaning of jazz that one hour couldn't possibly be enough to answer it. Neither could 100. It's one of those concepts that aficionados have been attempting to pin down since the dawn of the music, roughly a century ago.
Yet the very challenge of explaining something so ephemeral is what makes such a program possible, for the inquiry gives Barber and friends the opportunity to discuss jazz in depth and, better still, to play it. Just because the question can't really be answered, in other words, doesn't mean it shouldn't be asked. Quite the contrary.
What instantly sets "MusicHeads" apart from other jazz shows is the format: Barber converses with fellow musicians before asking them to perform musical examples solo and alongside her. In effect, we in the radio audience are eavesdropping on a dialogue among peers.
So the musicians aren't really trying to entertain us. Instead, they're discussing, debating and wrestling with a subject that concerns them profoundly. They're speaking to each other in their own language, their talk bristling with musical terminology.
That means musically literate listeners will be rewarded by the intellectual rigor of the discourse, while those who couldn't tell the difference between an arpeggio and an appoggiatura stand to learn a great deal. Granted, nonmusicians aren't going to be able to catch the meaning of every musical term and historical reference. Nevertheless, the conversation proves easy to follow, like listening to a postgame show in which players and coaches are speaking freely: the passion of the participants and the overall context of the discussion draw you in, even if you don't catch every reference.
Like Marian McPartland's "Piano Jazz," which airs in reruns on WDCB at 7 p.m. Wednesdays, "MusicHeads" features a prominent pianist chatting with peers, but Barber skips the pleasant chit-chat of McPartland's beloved show to dig more deeply into the intricacies of creating jazz. Like Bill McGlaughlin's "Exploring Music" on WFMT-FM 98.7, Barber examines the theory and history of her art form, but with live music rather than with recordings. And like Leonard Bernstein's televised "Young People's Concerts" of generations ago, Barber is not afraid to deconstruct music, though without Bernstein's hyper-kinetic manner (no one, of course, could match that).
Barber signals the seriousness of the endeavor in her opening soliloquy: "A show about swing music would be wonderful, but this is not that," she says forthrightly in a program recorded at PianoForte Studios on South Michigan Avenue. "What I'd like to investigate tonight is related to that music in both terminology and practice. We are going to be looking for the ineffable in jazz music. The difficult-to-define and difficult-to-realize feel-good transitive verb form of swing. What does it mean when we say music swings? How do musicians make music swing?"
Barber puts herself to the test, offering a solo version of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz." That's a cheeky way to begin an exploration of swing, considering that the piece obviously is in three-quarter time, a meter that does not easily lend itself to standard concepts of swing. But after Barber has played the main theme, she takes flight and, indeed, quickly reaffirms that a waltz can swing.
Then she quizzes three top Chicago musicians individually and in tandem, drawing intriguing responses and exquisite performances from bassist Larry Kohut, drummer Jon Deitemyer and saxophonist Jim Gailloreto.
So what is swing?
"This is actually one of my favorite — I don't know if it's true, probably apocryphal — quotes, attributed to Duke Ellington," bassist Kohut answers. "Somebody asked him 'what's swing?' or 'what makes something swing?' And the answer was: 'It's when the music feels like it's speeding up, but it doesn't.'"
Deitemyer addresses the question best from behind his drum set, turning the calendar back to an early chapter of swing: the New Orleans street beats that bands played in Jelly Roll Morton's day, at the turn of the previous century. You can hear in Deitemyer's buoyant playing the ebullient steps of an impromptu parade, but also a rhythmic elasticity that represented a stark departure from European classical music of the era.
"For most drummers, the original kind of jazz drum conception is that New Orleans second-line beat, which informed everything," says Deitemyer on the program. "So that was where you would play a marching band beat, but start to swing it."
Saxophonist Gailloreto puts his own spin on the subject, pointing out that swing is something you feel in your gut.
"It's very physical for me," he tells Barber. "As a matter of fact, when everything is working beautifully, and you feel fantastic about what's happening in the group, and the way you're playing, it almost feels like dancing. You're dancing through your instrument."
While the first half of the show serves up a great deal of musical analysis, the second offers more extended performances, the musicians stretching out on Juan Tizol's classic "Caravan," Dave Brubeck's disarming "In Your Own Sweet Way" and Barber's freshly contemporary "Crash." Here's where Barber and her producers might wish to tweak the structure of the show a bit, spreading the performances more evenly throughout the program, so that the first half isn't so much wordier than the second.
But that's a minor point that Barber should be able to address easily if the show gets picked up for installments beyond the three original programs. More important, this hour is tightly packed with welcome insights and first-rate music making.
So how does Barber answer the question she posed on the meaning of swing?
"When I started my research for the show, naturally I started with the dictionaries," she says toward the end of the program. "Interestingly, there is no real definition of swing in even the best dictionaries, including the Oxford and the Grove Dictionary of Music. Gunther Schuller, who wrote wonderful books on early jazz and swing struggles himself to describe swing. He calls it 'placement of a note within a column of air.' Hmmm.
"I would guess the definition of swing will remain elusive of the written word, and that's OK."
Yes it is, for what words cannot articulate, Barber and colleagues express in pitch, rhythm and, of course, swing.
Patricia Barber's "MusicHeads" explores "What Is Swing?" at 9 p.m. Wednesday; "The Piano as Percussion" 9 p.m. Jan. 21; and "The Double Bass" 9 p.m. Jan. 28; on WDCB-FM 90.9 and wdcb.org.
Chi-Town Jazz Festival lineup
The sixth annual Chi-Town Jazz Festival, organized by guitarist and Catholic priest John Moulder as a fund-raiser for hunger and relief, will run March 4 through 8 in various Chicago locations.
Among the highlights:
March 4: Tammy McCann and Mike Allemana, SHE and Geof Bradfield Quartet at the Jazz Showcase.
March 5: Justefan Band, Eric Schneider Quartet and Chicago Jazz Orchestra's Bill Overton, Andy's Jazz Club.
March 6: Matt Ulery's Loom, John Moulder Quartet and Chinchano, Green Mill Jazz Club.
March 8: Double Monk, featuring Steve Million and Jeremy Kahn, PianoForte Studios; Jazz Vespers, First Presbyterian Church of Evanston; Glenbrook South Jazz Lab Band, Ian Torres Big Band and Stephanie Browning Quintet, FitzGerald's.
In addition, donations for season-ticket drawings during Dianne Reeves' Jan. 30 concert at Symphony Center and Tigran Hamasyan's Feb. 13 performance at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts will go toward the Chi-Town Jazz Festival's charitable mission.
"Portraits in Jazz": Howard Reich's e-book collects his exclusive interviews with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and others, as well as profiles of early masters such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. Get "Portraits in Jazz" at chicagotribune.com/ebooks.
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