Patricia Barber is absolutely one of a kind. There are any number of jazz vocalists who have good voices, pitch, time, and piano chops; there are others who also sing as if they were looking straight into your eyes. But there is no one who is so consistently iconoclastic, and so deliberately intellectual. Ever since her first CD in 1989, abstract headiness has defined Barber's compositions and delivery; it was the core of her Mythologies
release (Blue Note, 2003), a song cycle based on Ovid's "Metamorphoses." Since that project was commissioned by the Guggenheim Foundation, it was necessarily lofty in intent.
The Cole Porter Mix, Barber's tenth CD, is a clear departure from this approach, since it features straightforward renderings of someone else's music. This set mixes ten of Porter's most familiar tunes with three of Barber's, all delivered with the expert, empathic assistance of long-term guitarist Neal Alger and bassist Michael Arnopol. Guest saxophonist Chris Potter adds his impressive tenor to five tunes, and the drum throne is capably shared by Eric Montzka and Nate Smith.
The music is carefully-crafted and intriguing, with fresh and swinging versions of Porter's timeless classics. It begins with the welcoming "Easy to Love," a sunny bossa with a surprising dash of R&B in the vocal. Barber contributes her own clever lyrics to "You're the Top," and interprets "C'est Magnifique" as a moody ballad, removing all traces of the jaunty vaudevillian Maurice Chevalier, who used to own this song. Potter's solos are remarkable, especially on "Just One of Those Things," "Snow," and "The New Year's Eve Song," and he wails like crazy at the end of "In the Still of the Night." Alger's atmospheric use of guitar distortion on "Get Out of Town" adds to the track's ominous throb, while Smith does great brushwork on the sexy "What is This Thing Called Love?."
Although Barber's originals lack the effervescent sparkle of Porter's music, they are always tuneful, intimate, and full of vivid imagery, and they fit well into this collection. All told, The Cole Porter Mix is Barber at her warmest and most accessible, and it gets richer and deeper with each listening.
Personnel: Patricia Barber: piano, vocals, melodica; Chris Potter: tenor saxophone; Neal Alger: acoustic guitar, electric guitar; Michael Arnopol: bass; Eric Montzka, Nate Smith: drums, percussion.