Jazz songwriter and pianist Patricia Barber's 2006 album Mythologies, a song cycle based on Ovid's Metamorphosis, is a sprawling work of poetic and musical adventure. Upon its release, it garnered universal acclaim from critics and responsive concert audiences across the United States and Europe. After this rigorous undertaking, Barber could have been forgiven for taking a breather. And on its surface, that seems to be what the Cole Porter Mix is. But in Barber's case, this is far from true. While she claims in her bio that she's been singing his songs for years, and that he's her favorite songwriter, she does anything but a "standard" read on his tunes, though she never undermines their integrity. The album is called a "mix" because Barber has woven three of her own tunes -- written after the manner of Porter's -- into the fabric of the album. Given her austere yet highly original readings of his songs, they fit in seamlessly. She is accompanied here by her longtime backing group of Neal Alger (guitar), Michael Arnopol (bass), and Eric Montzka (drums), with drummer Nate Smith alternating on three tunes, and guest saxophonist Chris Potter appearing on five.
Commencing with the opening number "Easy to Love," with its skeletal bossa nova rhythm (Barber doesn't play in the body of the tune and only contributes a wonderfully economical piano solo), and the relative austerity of her voice, it's obvious this isn't an ordinary standards set. She is faithful to the intent of these songs both lyrically and musically, but she shifts their arrangements in such a way that they are more suited to her deliberately restrained singing voice, and her own vocation as a songwriter. It's the songwriter she is paying tribute to here -- not the tradition. "I Concentrate on You" also carries within it the kernel of bossa, but this time, with her piano fills and artfully incisive manner of accenting, to quote Porter, "how strange the change from major to minor" without invoking the blues (the standard for doing so). Barber's pianism is elegantly idiosyncratic, even enigmatic. Her "cool" singing voice peels away the weight these songs have borne over the years, and instead returns to them their subtlety and gentle sense of humorous irony. There are some wild moments here -- such as the Latin polyrhythms at the heart of "In the Still of the Night," that set up a space for some serious blowing tenor by Potter -- but the spirit of "song" is never compromised. Barber's originals are truly canny, empathic evidence of her true understanding of Porter. "Snow," with its minor-key piano intro opens with: "Do you think of me like snow/cool, slippery and white? Do you think of me like jazz/as hip, as black as night?" The mysterious, dull ache of love and lust in "New Year's Eve Song" evokes the forlorn aspect of Porter but the strange, covert voyeurism of poet Robert Lowell's "Eep Hour": "Will he/peek in the mirror while she/knowing he's watching her tease/stripping the gown with ease/bare as the New Year, she/so in love with her is he..." All the while, the sense of a taut harmonic melody is inseparable from the lyrics, unveiling the secret intent in the song for both listener and singer. The Cole Porter Mix is a very modern form of imitation, as evidenced not only by interpretation but in her evocative compositions too; they mark the greatest form of flattery. But it is also an ingenious manner of reconsidering Porter -- and Barber -- with fresh ears. ~ Thom Jurek