Ten years ago, the University of Chicago's Contemporary Chamber Players took on a sleek new name – Contempo – and for the first time in its 40-year history presented jazz on an even footing with classical music.
The inimitable Chicago singer-pianist Patricia Barber was to have been the first jazz musician to perform on Contempo's new cross-genre venture, but she wasn't available. So Barber appeared in 2006 in a revelatory performance of excerpts of her "Mythologies" suite – complete with hip-hop performers from the Chicago Children's Choir and members of Choral Thunder at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Ever since those early days of the jazz-classical project, the organization has presented such jazz luminaries as pianist Brad Mehldau (who kicked off the venture in 2004), trumpeter Dave Douglas and singer Grazyna Auguscik.
On Saturday evening, Barber will return to mark the 10th anniversary of the now-indispensable Contempo Double Bill at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts, on a program that also will feature the Pacifica Quartet. What most people don't realize, however, is that Contempo's entire jazz-classical concept might not have developed in the first place if it weren't for Barber.
"I heard her at the Green Mill, and I thought to myself, 'This is fantastic,'" recalls Shulamit Ran, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and University of Chicago music professor who serves as artistic director of the Contempo collective.
"This was just really amazing music of tremendous imagination and very personal, very, very daring, and I had this sense of: 'I want other people of my ilk, so to speak, to hear it,'" adds Ran, referring to her classical colleagues and students.
"And then I had the realization that (musical) categories are not nearly as important as the level of imagination and creativity."
So Ran launched the jazz-classical double-bill and – a decade later – decided that there was no more appropriate way to mark the anniversary than by bringing Barber back.
A great deal has happened to Barber in the ensuing years, a musician much admired in Chicago having become a major draw in jazz clubs and concert halls around the world. Better still, Barber has developed into a remarkably effective songwriter, penning works that compress multiple levels of meaning and ambiguity into mostly compact musical forms.
Notwithstanding her distinctive discography and wide audience, Barber is feeling a heightened sense of responsibility for her return to the Contempo marquee.
"That's why I'm so nervous about it – it's a personal gig for me," says Barber.
"My sound guy was asking me what I want, and I said: 'It has to be right just because it's personal. It has to be right because it's for Shulamit, for Martha,'" continues Barber, referring to Martha Feldman, a professor of music and humanities at University of Chicago and Barber's partner.
"Shulamit has been such an influence on me. I'm making sure that the songs in this set have harmonic complexity. She doesn't care for the I, IV, V," adds Barber, using musicians' terminology for the most fundamental of chord progressions.
"She's always an alter ego in my head now, and she's taught me an awful lot about harmony, and how to open it up in ways that jazz musicians don't think of."
Clearly Barber sees herself as an artist in transition. In recent years, she has been drawing on an ever-widening circle of musicians to accompany her, and for the Contempo concert she'll be performing with New York drummer Ari Hoenig for the first time. Add to the mix New York-based Israeli guitarist Gilad Hekselman, who recently played an East Coast tour with Barber, and Chicago bassist Patrick Mulcahy, and you have what Barber considers a reflection of her new approach.
"I'm trying to find a way of (making) music without grabbing people by the throat, and Gilad is a little bit softer in his approach to everything," says Barber.
On tour, "he attenuated everything, and that's kind of what I was in the mood for and am in the mood for. (Also), less predictable dramatic shapes. … That's what I'm excited about, but it's a very difficult thing to articulate, and I hope the audience goes along with it.
"Cezanne's water colors are my favorite colors," adds Barber, referring to the translucent tones of the French painter's work. Her songs "are getting a little more like that. I don't know why. Maybe it's Shulamit's influence.
"I've done a lot of the rock-and-roll loud. I'm leaning toward more finesse maybe."
For the Contempo concert, Barber plans to draw on repertoire from her exceptional album of last year, "Smash," which contained a great deal of evocative songwriting. Original works such as "Scream," which explores an array of troubles, and "Missing," a succinct contemplation of longing, reaffirmed Barber's deepening skills as songwriter.