Music Review: Patricia Barber’s `The Cole Porter Mix’

by J.R. Carroll

“Singer/songwriter” is not a description often applied to jazz musicians, and generally with good reason: Jazz instrumentalists have demonstrated again and again that as wordsmiths they are, well, outstanding instrumentalists. At best, the typically after-the-fact lyrics strive uneasily for either social uplift or hipster knowingness; at worst, they are just embarrassingly lame.

Cole Porter is the perfect inspiration for an adventurous and individualistic songwriter like Patricia Barber.

A jazz instrumentalist with a genuine gift for writing lyrics has precious few precedents–aside from musicians like Louis Jordan and Ray Charles who straddled the line between jazz and R&B–to draw upon: Billy Strayhorn, for sure, though he rarely performed or recorded as a vocalist, hipster commentators Mose Allison, Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg, and possibly a few others. So it’s not surprising that younger jazz composers have also drawn inspiration from some of the more harmonically advanced popular songwriters: Stevie Wonder, Donald Fagen, Sting and, above all, Joni Mitchell, whose collaborations with Wayne Shorter, Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius confounded critics and lit up the imaginations of up-and-coming songwriters–like Patricia Barber.

Do you think of me like snow–cool, slippery and white? Do you think of me like jazz, as hip, as black as night? – Patricia Barber (“Snow”)

Patricia Barber’s vocal style has sometimes been described as “cool” (and occasionally in even more frigid terms), but I think this characterization confuses restraint in dynamics and timbre with emotional restraint. Miles Davis’s use of the Harmon mute, particularly in the 1950’s, was similarly mischaracterized (the “cool” in his short-lived “Birth of the Cool” bands was in the arrangements, not in his playing), and more than a few unsuspecting listeners (and some of the more obtuse critics) got their ears singed when the mute came off.

And, indeed, I believe Miles has been a more profound influence on Barber than any individual singer. In her performances, Miles’s terse, penetrating phrases, dropped in exactly the right place in exactly the right rhythm, are wedded to an acute sensitivity to the text, while his more virtuosic eruptions find their echo in keyboard flights that flow seamlessly out of her vocal lines in an unbroken musical thought. (Her keyboard influences include a heavy representation of Miles sidemen, Bill Evans foremost among them, but also echoes of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and occasionally even the block chords of Red Garland.) Even in a larger, formal dimension, Miles’s influence can occasionally be felt: In songs like “The Moon” (from her Verse CD), she adopts the alternation of free rhythm and funk that first emerged on Miles In The Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro.

The importance of her pianism should not be underestimated. The greatness of Louis Armstrong’s vocals lay not in their technical prowess–which couldn’t remotely approach the range and virtuosity of his horn–but in the complete unity of his musical concept: He sang the way he played, with the same genius for phrasing. Barber works in this tradition, her accompaniment providing commentary and her solos continuation to her vocal lines. There is never a sense, as has sometimes been the case with some other singer/pianists, of “OK, now I’m the pianist, then I’ll go back to being the singer.”

One of the most satisfying dimensions of Barber’s recent career has been her emergence (like her peer in category-defiance, Cassandra Wilson) as a distinctively original songwriter. Her 2002 CD Verse was devoted entirely to her own material, and in 2006, supported by an unprecedented (for a songwriter) Guggenheim Fellowship, she wrote and recorded an original cycle of songs, Mythologies, that brought eleven of the characters from Ovid’s Metamorphoses into the early 21st century with striking meditations on the personal and the political.

So, how do you follow an act like that? Well, expect the unexpected: The Cole Porter Mix.

But how strange the change from major to minor – Cole Porter (“Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”)

Though not at all strange in Euro-American concert music (Schubert and Mahler, in particular, made eloquent use of the shift to the parallel minor), jazz improvisers seem to prefer their descending half-steps to sit atop a “strong” modulation (“‘Round Midnight” is a good example). And while the blues scale blurs the distinction between major and minor, often via microtonal pitch bending, the expressiveness of Porter’s melodies frequently depends precisely upon this distinction–which may be why Porter (unlike, say, Gershwin, Arlen or Carmichael) may sing of pain and heartbreak, but almost never does so in the language of the blues.

It’s not surprising, then, that, although certain individual Porter tunes turn up with regularity (e.g., “Love For Sale”), jazz instrumentalists have rarely devoted an entire recording project to an exploration of his songs (and those who did have mostly been, like Porter, pianists). And even though pioneering Porter songbooks by Lee Wiley, Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day would seem to have put comparable projects by vocalists on a sound footing, a large proportion of the Porter projects in the last half-century have come from cabaret artists like Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short and, more recently, cross-over efforts by opera singers.

So, it is all the more intriguing when a forward-looking singer/pianist like Patricia Barber comes out with a CD like The Cole Porter Mix. True, it may have been a bit of a holiday for her, revisiting songs she grew up with as a respite from the rigors of creating Mythologies, but I believe her affinities with Porter run deeper than mere nostalgia.

For one thing, Porter, almost uniquely among the artisans of the Great American Songbook (the exceptions being Irving Berlin and, on occasion, Hoagy Carmichael), worked alone, creating both words and music for a body of over eight hundred songs (more than half of which were never published). This solitary mode of working allowed Porter to cultivate his disinctive harmonic nuance and a willingness to blow off 32-bar conventions (as did his contemporary Harold Arlen) for more elaborate and irregular forms (“Begin The Beguine” clocks in at an astounding 108 bars)–characteristics attractive to an adventurous and individualistic songwriter like Barber.

Even more evident is Barber’s absorption–especially in the three original compositions that she has interleaved on this disk with Porter’s songs–of his lyrical craftsmanship: interior rhymes, wordplay and a fondness for litany-like repetition. (Porter, in turn, learned much of his own craft from studying the lyrics of W. S. Gilbert–if you doubt this, give a listen sometime to “The Kling-Kling Bird in the Divi-Divi Tree,” complete with Gilbertian phrase extension.)

It’s the wrong song, in the wrong style – Cole Porter (“It’s All Right With Me”)

If you’re looking for a nostalgic homage to The Cole Porter Songbook, you won’t find it here. Ella was her own untouchable self, and put her unmistakable imprint on these songs. Patricia Barber has honored her predecessors not by imitation but by interpretation and–in her three originals–extension.

Barber has had the good fortune to work with the same trio of musicians–guitarist Neal Alger, bassist Michael Arnopol and drummer Eric Montzka–for more than five years, and their responsive backing beautifully supports her relaxed vocals and contemplative piano. She borrows Dave Holland’s drummer, Nate Smith, as a sub for Montzka on three of the tracks, and another Holland alum, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, joins the band on five of the tunes.

Among the great pleasures of this recording are its flow and pacing and the variety of its arrangements. Barber is an admirer of Brazilian vocalists Leny Andrade and the late Elis Regina and has honored their influence in several of the arrangements: “Easy to Love” opens the CD with a lilting bossa nova, complete with a Jobim-inspired piano solo; a misterioso “I Get a Kick Out of You” finds Potter paying oblique homage to Joe Henderson’s Jobim tribute, Double Rainbow; Montzka’s coloristic bolero groove dances behind Barber’s quietly fervent vocal and Alger’s acoustic solo on “I Concentrate on You;” and “In the Still of the Night” is recast as a propulsive samba, with fine solos by Barber and Alger, that erupts into a ferocious tenor outburst by Potter.

On more traditional ground, a lightly swinging “You’re The Top” bounces along atop Montzka’s brushwork, with Barber, like countless performers (including Porter himself) before her, adding an updated final verse (“You’re A Love Supreme, the American Dream, a Democrat!”) before giving the song an amusing twist at the close. Arnopol sets up a sprinting bass line (no one can walk this fast) for a pianoless “It’s Just One of Those Things,” which Barber and Potter take for a giddy ride. While some singers make “Get Out of Town” a slow and sultry come-on, intimating that it’s already “too late, my love,” Barber’s more agitated treatment conveys an urgent desire not to reopen a painful chapter in the protagonist’s love life, reinforced by Alger’s tortuous electric solo. Smith’s shuffling accompaniment to “What Is This Thing Called Love?” supplies an appropriately spare backdrop to Barber’s quizzical vocal and angular duet with Arnopol.

Stepping away from the piano, Barber, like Ella before her, delivers the problematic lyrics of “Miss Otis Regrets” quietly and without irony; then, the lynch mob violence explodes as guitarist Alger unleashes a coruscating electric solo that would not be out of place on a Neil Young/Crazy Horse album. In contrast, the nostalgic “C’est magnifique!” provides a showcase for Alger’s acoustic guitar, with Barber’s melodica supplying an endearing counterpoint to Potter’s solo.

The decision to mingle three of her own songs among Porter’s proves to have been not only audacious but auspicious; they channel Porter with affection and without a hint of mimicry. Her languid “I Wait for Late Afternoon and You” turns Porter’s upper-crust perspective on its head (“The industrious bunch through breakfast and lunch parlay a hedge fund hunch or two”) while tapping the almost palpably physical longing at the core of his love songs. The wistful ballad “Snow” (quoted above) is an absolute gem of a song, the parallelism and contrasts within and between the lines and stanzas echoed in evocative images of light and shadow, returning at the end to the poignant eponymous imagery of “Do you think of me like snow, school starting in the fall? Do you think of me in spring? Do you think of me at all?” With masterful phrasing that hovers ambiguously between statement and question, “The New Year’s Eve Song” captures the ambivalence of a couple clinging to the romance of the moment and fighting off fears of future disappointment as the alcohol wears off and another irrecoverable year recedes behind Potter’s schmaltzy tenor.

Patricia Barber titled this most enjoyable collection of songs The Cole Porter Mix but she could well have called it what it is: “Easy to Love.”


  1. Miguel Costa on October 8, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    I think of this album as a great balance between the sophisticated Barber style and the simple-jazzy-elegant Porter compositions.
    I like Verve, but this is a nice view of Porter’s work.
    Good review.

  2. liliana sugobono on October 27, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    I love the sounds in this album. It is a definite differente treatment of Cole Porter’s songs. Would aprecciate a Hello from Patricia for my program Algo muy Especial en Lima Perù.Thanks
    Liliana Sugobono

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