In December 2007, chatting between sets at Chicago's The Green Mill, Patricia Barber told me her group had just finished recording an album of Cole Porter songs (which they were also emphasizing that night), and that the new CD would soon be released. As it turned out, we had to wait until September 2008 for this, her tenth album, but The Cole Porter Mix was well worth waiting for.
Barber's albums typically focus mainly on her own extraordinary songs, with occasional covers mixed in. Her last album of song standards prior to this one was the excellent Nightclub from 2000.
A brilliant and meticulous wordsmith, Cole Porter was surely the most literary of great American popular songwriters, with his sure, poetic command of wit, irony and clever wordplay. I think of him as songwriting's F. Scott Fitzgerald — perhaps too because both men's works so often evoke sophisticated socialite decadence. Barber's strengths as both writer and performer — formidable intellect, verbal virtuosity and penetrating social observation — make her the perfect Porter interpreter, as is demonstrated in the 10 Porter songs and three Barber originals offered here. After hearing this CD many times, I feel that Barber here is "channeling" Porter, so rich and complete is her command of his idiom.
Let's take a look at Barber's writing in this context. "Late Afternoon and You" sets a languorous, decadent tone, anticipating an afternoon tryst at a luxury hotel — definitely a scene Porter would feel at home with. "Snow" mixes sensuous, concrete physical and abstract conceptual imagery as the insecure narrator questions her lover. Closing the album, "The New Year's Eve Song" is an interesting departure for Barber, as it describes a man and woman "so in love with" each other. She has written numerous love songs that don't specifically identify the sex of the parties, and in her cover choices she loves to turn around the implicit messages — easy, just don't change the pronouns when the singer is female — of such songs as Santana's "Black Magic Woman" and Tom Jones' sexist classic "She's a Lady." I take this track as Barber's final tip of the hat to Porter, who penned countless songs about heterosexual love. And let's not forget the new verse Barber appends to "You're the Top" — it'll bring a smile for most, I think, though perhaps not to John McCain partisans. What's the bottom line here? Barber's verbal and melodic style is wholly contemporary, but the "feel" of these songs is quite congruent with the Porter songs.
All of the Porter songs are beautifully realized. I'll mention just a few personal highlights. Barber goes against the Maurice Chevalier novelty approach to "C'est Magnifique," turning it into a slow, longing ballad. "Get Out of Town" is quiet and ominous, with striking guitar accents from Neal Alger. "In the Still of the Night" features dazzling ensemble work, with a hot piano solo from Barber and a wailing coda with Montzka and saxophonist Chris Potter. And Barber's deadpan ironic delivery on "Miss Otis Regrets" is note-perfect.
The musicianship here is absolutely great. The core Quartet — Barber, Arnopol, Alger and Montzka — play off each other flawlessly, and both Smith and, especially, Potter on sax contribute great work. Barber continues to grow as leader and arranger, giving the group ample room to stretch out and swing.
Barber gets producer credit, working again with recording engineer Jim Anderson. The sound is wide-range and natural, highly but not obtrusively detailed. The players are placed precisely within a natural, relaxed grouping. It is a demo-quality CD for those who use music rather than cannons and sound effects for audio evaluations.
Patricia Barber remains for this listener the finest jazz songwriter, singer, pianist and leader working today. She's the top! And this CD? C'est magnifique!