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Patricia Barber's unique style and unusual voice made her an easy target for critics in the early days of her career. Her piano playing and singing, while inventive, never ventured close enough to the avant-garde to earn her artistic license, and her insistence on writing her own material and adapting songs from the pop world made her difficult to categorize. A tireless performer who refused to conform to more conventional vocal jazz idioms, she worked her way up through the Chicago jazz scene slowly, almost reluctantly, after having spent several years in Iowa attending college and performing with local groups.
The daughter of Floyd "Shim" Barber and a blues vocalist, she had all but rejected the idea of becoming a jazz musician, but found herself drawn to the performing world after college. When she returned to Chicago, she was trashed by the local critics, and only after winning a five-day-a-week gig at the intimate Gold Star Sardine Bar and releasing her first album on her own Floyd label (1989's Split) did the tide begin to turn for her. She signed a contract with Verve and released A Distortion of Love in 1992, which brought her some positive critical attention and earned her a more national audience, but the big-label experience was trying for Barber and she sought a place where she could have more creative control. Her next two albums were issued by the tiny local label Premonition (1994's Café Blue and 1998's Modern Cool).
Premonition was purchased by Blue Note in 1998, and the label put some marketing muscle behind Barber, helping to bolster the international reputation she had already begun to earn. Blue Note released Companion in 1999 — intended to act as her introduction to a wider audience, the album reprised much of her popular material and was recorded live at Chicago's Green Mill, a historic jazz club where Barber had been performing weekly for several years. 2000's Night Club took her back into a studio setting, but still featured many of the inventive interpretations that had distinguished her work in the past. Barber issued her edgy, critically acclaimed Verse on the Blue Note label in 2002. She won a Guggenheim in March of 2003 to create a song cycle based on Ovid's Metamorphses. Her concert set Live: A Fortnight in Paris was issued on the label in 2004, consisting of five originals, five covers, and two brand new songs. Mythologies followed in 2006. A year later, the anthology The Premonition Years: 1992-2002 appeared, detailing most of Barber's early releases. In 2008, Barber took a break from her original material and delivered the jazz standards studio album The Cole Porter Mix. She toured to support the album and continued to play festivals and her longstanding Monday night gig at the Green Mill in Chicago. She continued writing, and tried out her new material at the club, using a revolving cast of players — many of whom were among the city's younger generation of players. Barber signed to Concord in 2012. Smash, her debut offering for the label, was released in January of 2013.