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Patricia Barber : The Cole Porter Mix

Patricia Barber and Cole Porter may not seem like kindred spirits, but their musical psyches are in considerable sync. Midwesterners born nearly a century apart, both grew up to be frighteningly erudite, witty and intelligent (often to the point of icy aloofness) and yet, oxymoronically, almost blindly romantic. So, it seems odd that, over the course of two decades, the singer-songwriter-pianist has only once invaded the Porter songbook, including “Easy to Love” on her 1989 debut, Split.

Now, at last, she takes a headlong dive into the Porter pool and the results make the familiar utterly fresh. Leave it to Barber to interpret “I Get a Kick Out of You” as a sleepy, post-coital nod to a supremely satisfying lover, then take “In the Still of the Night” at a lively trot and revisit “Easy to Love” as a twilit bossa nova that escalates from sensuous warmth to fiery abandon. The new lyrics she adds to “You’re the Top,” including references to Alice Waters, Princess Diana and the Clintons, are the most imaginative since Anita O’Day’s reinvention of it as “You’re the Bop” some five decades ago.

Brilliantly supported by what has in recent years become her regular trio-bassist Michael Arnopol, guitarist Neal Alger and drummer/percussionist Eric Montzka (with Neil Smith, a newcomer to the Barber fold, subbing on three tracks)-she also receives stellar assistance from saxophonist Chris Potter on five selections. And, augmenting the eight Porter gems covered here, Barber adds three of her own compositions, all intended to capture the Cole zeitgeist.

Though Porter, a master of economic elegance, would never likely have chosen as clunky a title as “I Wait for Late Afternoon and You,” the song’s structure (complete with the interior rhymes he so adored) and sophisticated theme (a clandestine tryst) are pure Cole. Also, Barber’s “Snow” ably echoes his ardor for list songs. Her closing “The New Year’s Eve Song” is the least Porter-esque, though its sultry fantasies of midnight clinches are mighty clever. If there’s a disappointment with The Cole Porter Mix it’s that Barber didn’t dig a little deeper. Considering her sharply sophisticated sense of humor, how delightful it would have been to hear her take on, say, “Always True to You in My Fashion” or “I Hate Men.”

Originally Published