Not familiar with jazz vocalist, pianist and songwriter Patricia Barber? Let her introduce herself to you:
Do you think of me like snow
cool, slippery and white?
Do you think of me like jazz
as hip, as black, as night?
That's a better description than I could write, from one of three originals on her latest album, The Cole Porter Mix. Elusive and in your face, private yet frank, subtle but edgey -- Patricia Barber is all these things, often at once.
So why choose to do ten tunes by Cole Porter? Few composers evoke as distinct an image as Porter: he's the Fred Astaire of songwriters, he's white tie and tails, he's ... well, he's the top. Jazz musicians have often played his tunes, but doing more than an homage is a challenge, in the same way, maybe, that Monk is. How do you do a Porter tune and make it sound like a Porter tune but yet make it your own? And, to tell the truth, after all these years, how do you avoid being campy on some of them?
Barber seems untroubled by all of that, not surprising for someone as slippery and hip as her song describes. She's made a career out of smart, surprising pop covers -- Light My Fire, Ode to Billie Joe (both from Modern Cool)-- getting inside jazz standards -- You and the Night and the Music (Modern Cool)-- and finely crafted, very modern originals, such as Touch of Trash (Modern Cool) and The Fire and If I Were Blue (both from Verse).
So with her intrepid band, including longtime companions Neal Alger (guitar) and Michael Arnopol (standup bass) and recent addition, drummer Eric Montzka, she adds "the mix" to Cole Porter. In quite a few of the songs, that's a Brazilian beat, whether bossa (Easy to Love) or samba (In the Still of the Night). She goes further in transforming Cole, adding the excellent Chris Potter on tenor to five tunes.
Check out how they take a chestnut like I Get A Kick Out Of You and make it their own. Arnopol flattens out the harmony by playing a bass drone, straight out of middle to late Coltrane. Immediately, the tune stops sounding like a '30s piece. Potter adds an angular post-bop solo, more disciplined than free, more free than trad. Barber stays back on the piano, but picks up on Potter's dischords and builds the right chords around them, moving effortlessly between Porter and Potter. All the while she sings as if she means its, as if she wrote the lyrics about someone she knows.
On Get Out Of Town, her urgent vocal is accompanied by Alger's tense, harmonic minor volume swells, producing a Middle Eastern tinge. At the end, Alger takes the same scales and slides into a Latin tag to the tune. This is what Barber's group does so well -- centered in jazz, fluent in rock, Latin, Brazilian, and many other influences.
Barber, to me, is one of the top three female jazz vocalists today, along with Diana Krall and Cassandra Wilson. That's probably not a widely shared opinion. But when I hear the Roberta Parris's, the Roberta Gamberinis, the Jane Monheits, I hear little that Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughan, Billie Holiday or even Rosemary Clooney hadn't done by the mid-'50s. What's the point, really, in just reproducing that?
Krall, Wilson, and Barber, all in their own ways, have tried to take the occasionally problematic notion of jazz vocals in their own directions. Krall is the least adventurous, but at least she's expanded the canon and done it believably. She probably also has the best voice of the three. Wilson has done wonderful things with instrumentation, beat and is a great improvisor, although she has recently sunk into laconic performances and material that doesn't seem to work for her. Barber is not quite as adventurous as Wilson and much more so than Krall. She has a fine voice, but is more interested in interpreting than showing off.
Of course, she's not all jazz. Alger is her partner in crime in stretching the music into all sorts of things -- mainly rock, but flamenco, brazilian, latin, whatever. He's extremely versatile, whether doing flamenco on the acoustic or making his Strat sound like 10 different guitars. He's disciplined, tight, lyrical when called for, acerbic when desired.
What Barber brings to the table that Krall and Wilson don't is great writing talent. If I Were Blue is one of the great lyrics out there. The entire Verse album, in fact, is as strong a writing exercise as any jazz lyricist has done in decades. I felt that on her last album, Mythologies, her intellect and sophistication betrayed her with an overly intellectual exercise (translating Greek poetry into jazz) that wasn't terrible but lacked a certain power that her other work exudes. But she's back here.
She seems to regain her bearings on The Cole Porter Mix, perhaps because of a second great reason to take on the Porter songbook: a genre bending reading of his love songs. Here's Barber, herself a lesbian, singing the gay Porter's faux straight love songs. Barber has been both open and subdued about her sexuality, neither a poster girl or closeted. She puts herself out there a little more with this album, posing for a back cover photo (seemingly as Cole Porter) that KD Laing might be proud of.
On The Fire, on Verse, she penned an aching love song about a woman pretending to lover her spouse. You could read it either as a woman no longer in love with her husband or a gay woman trapped in a straight relationship, or for that matter, anyone trapped in a false relationship. I suspect that some listeners, particularly gay ones, will enjoy similar multiple readings of several Porter songs.
In the end, it doesn't seem to matter much. Barber's fine understanding of the subtleties of love and life, her ironic humor, her quiet passion, her broad musicality are universal and delightful. Don't miss this talented pianist/chanteuse/songwriter at the height of her powers.