Chapter 1: Angels, Birds and Us – the trip to Vienna
Every year, I spend January 1 performing a very cherished ritual.
From the moment I get out of bed, I retire to the living room with a large cup of coffee and two daily planners. One is for the previous year, the other for the one that’s just starting. I don’t answer the phone, don’t reply to e-mails or even turn on the computer. For up to ten hours, I’m engrossed in a meticulous routine during which I’m completely isolated from the world. It’s my favorite day of the year.
For exactly a decade I’ve been keeping a daily journal, recording everything I do and all that’s important to me. I write down my schedule, the amount of work I get done and the specific way I relax afterwards. I document where I go and whom I meet, whom I talk to on the phone or online and the topics of our conversation. In case Ioana and I happen to be traveling, I mention the places we visit.
My new year’s ritual consists of meticulously studying every entry in the old planner and occasionally writing down important information in the new one – names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, birthdays and appointments.
The entire first day of every year since 2007 has been dedicated to one long, detailed trip down memory lane. It’s not only an effective mental exercise that has verifiably improved my memory, but also an opportunity to reminisce. It’s a chance to come to terms with the lows but, more importantly, to relive the highs.
Once in a while, something so cool happens that I get excited at the prospect of reliving it even while the event is still taking place. Which brings me to December 3, two days before my thirty-first birthday.
Exactly four weeks after the monumental Bagatelles marathon wherein I got to see a great number of my favorite musicians live, I once again found myself inside the legendary Porgy & Bess, this time staring at a photograph of one of my absolute creative role models, Chicago-born composer, pianist and vocalist Patricia Barber.
The night of the Zorn concert I kept thinking that a bucket-list experience like that was a fitting event to close off an intense, capricious year and usher in the lull of the winter holidays. Little did I know that, for The Music and Myth, 2016 was far from over.
Those who have been following The Music and Myth over the years know what Patricia Barber’s work means to me. I’ve discovered her a short while after setting up the website (and, implicitly, starting my study of serious music) and her phenomenal record Smash has been a constant presence in the Cherascu household ever since.
I’ve never shied away from expressing my opinion that Smash is one of the best records in any genre in recent memory. This flawless, profoundly lyrical and thematically comprehensive work has even inspired me to create The Music and Myth Awards as a response to its artistically criminal omission from the 2014 Grammy ballot. Simultaneously, it has inspired me to ridicule NARAS at every turn, which has become almost as notable a tradition as the prestigious Music and Myth Awards themselves.
For Ioana and me, seeing Patricia in concert meant fulfilling a musical ambition that dated back almost four years. But there was another longtime goal I was looking to achieve: sitting down for an interview with one of music’s most captivating storytellers.
On Friday evening, one day before the concert, I was standing outside Patricia’s hotel on the Vienna beltway. The interview was scheduled for 22:00 but I’d arrived early, accompanied by my usual jazz-traveling party: my wife and in-laws. I spent that hour at the ground floor restaurant, mostly fretting about where the hell I was going to conduct the interview, since the establishment was uncomfortably loud and the receptionist had assured me that there was absolutely no other communal space in the boutique hotel. I knew from walking around the area that there were no other quiet spots in the vicinity, so I was left anxious and irritated.
My anxiety was instantly dispelled when Patricia came down to meet us in the lobby (I’d asked Ioana to join me for the interview). There was something about the distinguished musician’s personality that gave me the feeling I’d known her for years. She greeted us like friends and we proceeded to look for the quietest place we could find. A quick inspection instantly disqualified the cramped locale, so Patricia just shrugged and said, “My room?”
We took the elevator up to the fifth floor, while Patricia recounted how she’d had to call the reception to get an extra chair, because there was only one in the room.
“I told them, ‘I need more than one chair, I’m an old person’,” she joked. “This is a children’s hotel.” We laughed and she turned to Ioana. “See, but now you’re going to have to sit on the bed.”
Chapter 2: Post-Enlightenment Free – the interview
Patricia, I know you’ve been struggling with a cold for the past few days. How are you feeling now?
It’s fine. It’s over.
That’s good to know. First, let me say, we’re happy to have you back in Europe.
I know you haven’t been here in 2016, but you’ve been here many times over the years. Can you discern a difference between the jazz scene in Europe compared to the United States?
I can’t tell because I’m only playing these specific clubs, so I can’t tell if you have more than that… in Vienna, for instance, more than Porgy and Bess. So I can’t tell you what it’s like in Europe, unfortunately. You’d have to live there for a while to understand.
When you’re traveling, do you have the chance to collaborate with European musicians or play together at festivals?
No. We go like this (she makes a gesture of the hand to symbolize going directly from one place to the next).
Do you always go to the same venues?
No. Budapest, for example, was a different hall – a wonderful, wonderful experience. But often… I’ve been to Porgy & Bess, I’ve been to the New Morning in Paris. So, some are new, some are old.
You’re a resident musician at the Green Mill in Chicago…
Yeah. I play every Monday.
How did you end up collaborating with them?
I had been working at the Gold Star Sardine Bar, which was a very popular club; a very nice club. The only thing about the Gold Star was that [the owner] insisted that I do standards, which I got to know very well after nine years there. I knew them anyway, but I got to know them extremely well. But I had a feeling that I wanted to write my own music and that wasn’t okay with him. So I sat home for about a year (laughs). I took time off. I wasn’t sure I still wanted to do this. And Dave Jemilo called me on the phone and said, “Why don’t you just come in Sunday night and see what happens?” I said okay. So I did that. And from there we went Sundays and Mondays and it became very full and then we stayed on Mondays.
For how long have you been playing there regularly?
We don’t know. Dave and I don’t count exactly. Eighteen years… something like this.
That’s a long time.
It’s a long time.
So, basically, your career developed simultaneously with this ongoing gig.
(Art this point I dropped my notebook and papers and spent a while picking them up off the floor. I joked about the fact that I’m Romanian and that until 1989 we barely had electricity, which is why I prefer good old fashioned pen and paper over modern technology. Patricia agreed that “paper doesn’t run out of batteries.”)
I remember playing in Romania and it was raining on the Steinway piano. I was so upset. I wanted to cover the piano instead of continuing the concert.
This always happens at the Garana Jazz Festival. I don’t think they’ve had a single year without a downpour. In fact, I was going to ask you whether you had any notable memories from performing in Romania.
That was my memory. “Oh, my God, we can’t let it rain on the piano (laughs).” But it was a beautiful place up there on that mountain. And that hotel was really, really beautiful… just gorgeous.
On October 5 at the Ear Taxi Festival you debuted a new song cycle called Angels, Birds and I. Are your concerts in Europe going to revolve around this new project? Will you be presenting it for us tomorrow?
Yes. I’ve been putting [the songs] in the concerts, but not like a song cycle, in order. Because that takes a very special kind of situation and this is not that. But I have been putting them in the concerts, two or three per set and they definitely influence the set, they definitely influence the whole vibe… the sound.
When you put together the set list for a concert, do you specifically look for a narrative coherence? Do you pick the order of the songs based on their topic?
No. It has much more to do with tempo, pacing, key. To make a difference between those things for the audience, who may have never heard me before and they’re not so interested in the five tunes. So it has to do with tempo, key, variation, time signature.
Tell me a bit about this song cycle. I know the songs are built around your fascination with singers, specifically opera singers. How did this project start?
The first song I wrote is called “Higher.” I wrote this one for my mother, who was a great singer. So that was what brought me to the singing. Singing to her when she was dying was a great source of relief for her and I also wanted to tell her that it’s okay to go. So,this is called “Higher”, meaning…
(she quotes from the song)
And you my true love
Have been stilled by pain
Grounded in silence
On Earth you’ll remain
Until an Air
Blows in like spring
You’ll be young again
Raise your voice, take wing
So it’s a song meant to ease the transition.
Yes, but using song, using music. That started it. After that started, I wrote another song. Then, Renée Fleming came into the jazz club. She had been at the club before and we just enjoy each other’s company. I said, “Is there something you’d like to hear?” and she showed me her iPhone which had a very specific list of my songs. Some of them were these songs and some were other songs like “Scream”, which she also sings and it sounds beautiful, really beautiful. Working with her, I wrote more songs and then she would take them and so I wrote some more songs. “Surrender” she also sang and I accompanied her. We ended up doing a concert together in Chicago, New York and Washington DC of my music – only my music. So a lot of these songs have become art songs, because they don’t really need a drummer.
When you performed them together, did you also sing or just play piano?
I played. I played, she sang.
So you wrote the other songs with Renée in mind.
In the middle of it, I did. In fact, “Voyager”, which I’ve done and I’ll probably do tomorrow night, is written with her in mind. It is definitely about Renée Fleming. It’s definitely about her or the phenomenon of the operatic singer. Then, “The Opera Song” I wrote for her – only for her – which I probably won’t do tomorrow night and “Muse” I wrote for her. “Muse” is the culmination of the five-song cycle. I became the god of music because I’m the protagonist, I’m the one writing music. And the god makes a contract in agreement with her – “If I give you music, will you give me form?” As gods always want mortal form.
When you’re writing music, do you perceive yourself as a songwriter first, then a vocalist or pianist?
It’s hard to say. Different times, different things, you know? Sometimes I feel like playing the piano, sometimes I feel like singing. I love composing, but it’s a very solitary activity. Being an introvert, I think that I could do that only and then just change the keys and hand them to Renée, or hand them to somebody else and I think I’d be relatively happy with that. But music is dead if it’s not communicated… it’s just dead. You write it and it has to go out and have a relationship with people, otherwise it doesn’t work. So, I’m stuck in this situation; once I write this music I have to play it and sing it for somebody, otherwise it doesn’t work. They have to hear it and I have to understand in some way that they understand it. I have to know in some way that they get it. They don’t have to get it all the way, but it has to work in some way. Just musically perhaps, harmonically, lyrically… you know?
Who is the first person you play new music for? Is it your wife?
Often. Often it’s Martha, yeah.
I remember talking to Neil Cowley about this. I asked him if he ever got feedback from his family and he joked that he’s sensitive and he’s scared of what his wife would say. That she has, I quote, “the unfortunate habit of saying the things that will make me cry the most.” That’s why I was wondering about the first person to hear your songs.
Martha, definitely Martha. But then I send it to two or three people. Renée is one these days. If it’s this kind of a song, I send it to her. And, whatever she’s doing… she’s all over the world, she’s busy right now, especially this year… but she always gets back to me.
Where did this interest in opera and classical music, especially the classical musician, originate?
It started… well, with Martha. Martha’s an expert in 18th century opera; it’s her field… Mozart and the castrati… She’s written three big books and won a bunch of book awards now. She introduced me to classical music twenty years ago. Since then, I’ve been listening to opera, just amazed sometimes. The first time I heard Verdi, I was amazed. But I started to feel trapped by the harmonic language of jazz. It’s very specific, very strict. So I went to a friend of ours – whom she’s out with tonight, in fact – Shulamit Ran. She’s a great composer. She’s won a Pulitzer prize and everything. I went to her for a few harmony lessons and she taught me – it was like a magic key that she gave me – she taught me how to break apart or break away from that very strict harmonic system of jazz.
Since then, it’s been crazy. I mean, even on Smash, a lot of those things are stepping outside of the normal jazz harmonic system. You can see that influence starting very early on in pieces like “The Wind Song”. Some of those chords I go to on the bridge are not jazz. You would not expect them to happen. Way back in “Morpheus” – that was 1993, when I won that Guggenheim fellowship – I started stepping outside. And for “Morpheus” I used Schumman.
I studied Schumman and watched the way that he moved his chords and I kind of based “Morpheus” loosely on that kind of idea. So this is an art song, there’s no reason to have a drummer. Any opera singer can sing it. Shulamit told me as soon as I put them in a book, they will.
What’s the plan going forward with this? Do you plan on extending the song cycle or will you keep it to five?
This particular one ends at five because the god of music has struck the deal with the singer and she gets what she wants – she gets to be inside the sinner’s skin. She gets to know what it feels like to be the opera singer. I didn’t realize when I started the song that it would be the end but that is the end. They’ve merged. There will be more songs and they may be art songs or not, but that song cycle is done.
Do you plan on recording it in any form?
Yes, I would like to. I was just having a conversation on the computer with Paris. TSF wants to record the concert and I’m saying, “Not yet.” These songs haven’t been recorded and I don’t want to record them at a live concert. So we’re having this discussion.
The first time they’re heard I want to make sure they’re right. I want to make sure they’re perfect.
This is decidedly not a jazz approach.
Right. Well, I have so many of those songs I can do, but this song cycle is different.
How would you envision your next record?
I don’t know. I just finished the five songs, so I want to take my time. This isn’t the problem. Everybody’s telling me, “We need a record.” First of all, I think the album is outdated. I’m not sure I want to do that anymore. I just did a live CD from the Green Mill. You can get it on my website and it’s really fun. It sounds exactly like the Green Mill, including the bus that comes by – you can hear the bus.
Now that’s a jazz approach.
That’s really fun. I’m not sure I want to hand myself over to any kind of record company anymore. I think that it’s old fashioned, but I’m the minority at this point. But I’m sure I’m right… I’m sure I’m right (laughs). So I will record a CD or an album with the five songs, but I haven’t written the rest of them. I have time.
Nothing in the immediate future, then.
I definitely think you can take your time. Smash will undoubtedly stand on its own for a long time.
Well, I feel that way. I definitely feel that way. There’s no hurry. I just feel completely confident in the path I’m taking right now. It’s definitely not consistent with the path that other musicians are taking.
Did you maybe feel that the record company or the record format didn’t do [Smash] justice? Is this doubt about putting out another traditional record somehow connected to your experience with Smash?
Well, they didn’t do justice to it at all. But I think that’s partly because of the times, you know? The record companies are just falling apart. They have nothing really to offer anybody and they just take the money from individuals. If I offer an album on my website, I can actually make some money… not a lot, but some. And that seems more fitting to me, so we’ll see. People threaten me all the time, “If you don’t do this, this is going to happen to you” and I’m like, “What is the worst that can happen to me?” What is the worst that can happen to me? What? I don’t come back to this club for a while? So what? I don’t care… I just don’t care.
As you know Smash is one of my all-time favorite records. It also inspired The Music and Myth Awards back in 2014 when I chose it Best Vocal Record. As the person who inspired The Muisc and Myth awards, I was wondering who you’d pick as Best Vocal Record and Best Instrumental record for this year. It can be from any genre.
Renée Fleming, Berg. That Berg album is great. And Shulamit Ran, Glitter, Shards, Doom, Memory. Her latest string quartet is unbelievable. The Pacifica Quartet plays it. And they did an amazing series of Shostakovich.
So, these are the best records of the year.
For me, you know? This is what I’ve listened to.
That’s what the Music and Myth Awards is all about: the listener’s personal experience with the music. When I write my Music and Myth awards article every January, I always make a point out of stating that these are my subjective picks. My point being that any awards are entirely subjective and anyone who claims otherwise is lying. Music is an individual experience; nobody can conduct an objective evaluation. NARAS has no idea what they’re doing…
No. Not at all.
It’s all just somebody’s personal opinion. This is the cornerstone of The Music and Myth Awards. I just wanted to bring this up since it all started with you and Smash. But going back to Angels, Birds and I, is there any other musician you’d like to hear performing these songs?
All of them (laughs). As many as I can get. I mean, all of them that I love and admire. My music might, in fact, appeal to people like this, as it appeals to Renée. I would love to get Philippe Jaroussky to do a thing but, you know, he’s too famous. I would love to get Alice Coote, a mezzo-soprano – a low mezzo-soprano – to do some of these tunes. So… many, many people.
How about Angela Gheorghiu? My wife is a great fan of her work and I know you are too.
Oh yeah, she’s pretty special.
I don’t listen to a lot of classical and opera. I mean, I can listen, but I don’t presume to understand its complexity. I’ve always been drawn mostly to jazz and world music.
I’d love for great jazz singers to sing this. I’ve been trying to get Sheila Jordan to sing one of my songs forever, but it’s not happening. I don’t think that she reads music, so it would take some time for her pianist to teach it to her. But any great jazz musician. Kurt Elling sang “The New Year’s Eve Song” and it sounds great. And it’s getting more and more play, I can see it from my royalty statements.
Speaking of royalty statements, could you tell me a bit about what it’s like for jazz musicians nowadays trying to support themselves from their art. Al Di Meola told me that people are buying a steadily decreasing number of records in the U.S and that, I quote, “there’s not one CD store in the U.S.” What is it like now compared to ten, fifteen years ago?
You mean the computer? Oh… well, it took away our living. It took away any payment from writing songs. So I would think that people who might consider writing songs for a profession will not do it anymore. I can’t imagine how they would start. They can make money in concerts but… I used to make really good money writing songs and now I make none. Zero. Songwriting is just zero. Spotify and all… they have taken it all.
As a self-published author, I understand the situation very well. But I have to admit that the internet has helped me discover so much new music and so many musicians whom I’d never have known otherwise. I ended up buying their records and going to their shows.
There are good things. There are good things about it. It’s hard for anybody. If you make shoes or you make rocket ships, somehow the value of it… You know, if you don’t get paid for it, somehow it screws around with your head a little bit. But I’m very independent. I’ve been so independent all my life so it doesn’t screw around with me as much as other people but it’s definitely something… it’s definitely a thing. Because I started buying real estate when I was twenty-six, I can survive.
So it’s not exclusively music then.
No, I can survive because I bought real estate. I rent places, you know? Even today… I’ll be on the road and someone writes to me and says, “Where’s the milk?”
Do they know they’re renting places from Patricia Barber?
Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.
That seems like it should drive the price up.
Well, Air BnB is making it so that you can do that. And sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But most people – ninety-nine percent – enjoy it when I practice (laughs).
Because we were talking about singers and your new song cycle being about singers, I wanted to ask you a related question. You have a very unique way of expressing yourself as a vocalist. There’s a certain particularity about your delivery that involves not only your timbre, but also your intonation, your speech tempo. Does it come naturally or is it something you’ve practiced and developed? Are you aware of it while you perform?
Yeah, people tell me that and I don’t exactly know what they’re referring to, which is fine. I don’t look into it too deeply. I did, of course, work as a singer when I was young, to stay in tune. I worked as a singer to keep the hands in exact metric time and to loosen up my voice so that’s like a two… double-brain thing. I worked on all those things but… no.
You’re not aware of it.
This is a question I ask almost everyone. Being a science fiction author, it’s somewhat of a trademark question in my interviews. If you could travel back in time to the moment when you first realized you wanted to pursue a career in music, what would you tell yourself?
I would say, “Do what you love. Always do what you love.” Because I get up in the morning and I do what I love. The financial aspect… you have to think of something. If you have some other idea that can help you, if you can start investing when you’re young, that would be great. Maybe not in the stock market but something else. I don’t trust the stock market right now, with the way things are. I never have. I’m not very good at it. I’m good at a buildings and windows and toilets and stuff like that.
In recent years, the political sphere has been dominated by a powerfully divisive rhetoric and there seems to be growing anger and discord all over the world. Do you think that musicians can play a part in bringing people together or help bridge the gap or should music stay completely outside of politics and current world events?
I think music is very healing. I was very political during the election; I worked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. I know her. But when I go into the concert hall or the jazz club I do not speak of it. Because, to me, music is better than all of that. Music is, interestingly, the one thing that survives centuries. It survives Aleppo being razed to the ground. Music will survive that, and it floats over the centuries and it comes to us in the form it was in the fourteenth century or the tenth century, it still comes to us. Music is amazing that way.
Now, having said that… some of my songs are political. They have been in the past, less so now, because I’ve been interested more in universal themes. Sometimes my songs are political, so you can tell kind of where I stand on the political scale. And I’ve had to pay for that in terms of… I’ve been banned from certain venues and certain radio stations because of the content of my lyrics.
Did it ever affect the way you compose?
It didn’t before, but now the U.S is different so, I don’t know… It probably won’t affect the way I compose. But when I was working for Hillary Clinton, I would have to take the pins and everything off before I went into the club, to make sure that I was just neutral. And I took out the songs that were political. I used to write funny songs about Bill Clinton and Obama – I took them out. Because I don’t want someone to be uncomfortable. I just think music is better… it’s just better than we are. It’s just better. You can give someone something better than what we have on this Earth.
I think you just gave me the title of my article.
That’s good (smiles).
I have just one more question. This one is from Ioana. Will you be performing “Scream” tomorrow night?
Chapter 3: An Angry Song – the performance
“Yes,” she said, flashing a mysterious smile whose significance we would discover the following evening. We told her that “Scream” is Ioana’s and my favorite and she seemed pleased to hear that.
We said our goodbyes and I was surprised and delighted to find out that Patricia reads science fiction, as I’d brought along a copy of my first book as a gift – a token of appreciation for being so generous with her time. After getting to talk to her so extensively and getting a glimpse inside the mind of this thoroughly dedicated musician, we were even more excited about the upcoming concert.
We arrived at the venue thirty minutes early and were seated at a balcony table, right above Patricia’s piano. By the time the artist walked out and informally introduced herself and her band, the place was packed. When she started playing, I realized why meeting her the other night had felt so familiar.
It’s a rare thing among musicians – and indeed artists of any kind – but Patricia Barber the person resembles Patricia Barber the artist almost perfectly. It’s like she is a walking embodiment of her music: captivating, graceful and intelligent, candid but at the same time somewhat mysterious. On stage, her confident and charismatic presence belies the stage fright she claims to suffer from to this day. Her rapport with the audience is reserved but sincere, and her crowd interactions never come off as forced or pandering.
Perhaps the most heartwarming aspect of her performance was the very visible degree of intimacy between the pianist and her instrument. She seemed to relate to the venue’s trademark Fazioli as an old friend, not just a tool of the trade, at times seeming as though she and the piano were speaking a language only they could understand, complete with its own set of private jokes.
Though Patricia’s incomparable voice and the aforementioned particularities of her delivery can be so captivating as to demand the listener’s full attention, her piano playing is equally distinctive. Her percussive and unrestrained technique stands in fascinating contrast with her deep voice and controlled cadence, giving the songs a feeling of strength, even when she sings – in her own words – “a bad song” like Sinatra’s “This Town” or – in my words – fantastic songs like “Code Cool”, “The Moon”, “Caravan” or “You Gotta Go Home”.
Her band consisted of longtime collaborators Patrick Mulcahy (bass) and Jon Deitemyer (drums) whose performance was absolutely commendable for the subtle ways in which it enriched and highlighted Patricia’s articulation, without ever distracting from or stepping out of the songwriter’s creative identity.
For us, the highlight of the evening came right at the end. After the musicians left the stage to enthusiastic applause, they returned for an encore of “Light My Fire” before leaving again without having played “Scream”. I realized the significance of Patricia’s smile from the night before – she’d been planning to close the with “Scream”, demonstrating a brilliant insight into narrative coherence after all.
“It’s an angry song,” Patricia said, telling the audience that she’d been feeling rather angry herself lately. “Perhaps I’ll record an entire album of angry songs,” she mused.
After the first encore, the band returned to a standing ovation. When they started playing “Scream”, it took me back to the time I’d heard Mark Knopfler playing “Telegraph Road” in Budapest. For someone born in a country that was, until fairly recently, musically and artistically isolated, hearing your favorite musicians playing your favorite songs carries just a touch of otherworldliness that would be hard to imagine for someone from a different background.
There isn’t a lot to say about the band’s rendition of this modern-day anthem. It was perfect, start to finish. Perfect. Any attempt to describe it would not do it justice and might even be discourteous. “Scream” is, by excellence, a song that speaks for itself and demands to be experienced.
The feeling of otherworldliness persisted long after the excellent concert. On our way home, while waiting for the subway, I thought back to a few hours before. We were having dinner at a restaurant close to the venue. The Music and Myth’s Patron Saint, Sofia Rei, had just texted me to talk about a new project she’ll be bringing to Europe in 2017. She asked me how the Zorn show was and I told her that I’m actually back in Vienna, just an hour away from seeing Patricia Barber in concert.
The surrealness of that moment instantly made me think how exciting it will be to relive the experience on January 1. Now, just a few hours away from my yearly ritual, the day I think about the most is the day I started The Music and Myth. I think about how much I’ve learned, how far I’ve come and what an incredible journey it’s been.
Happy New Year!