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Patricia Barber: Verse

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illustration of Patricia Barber and Natalie Cole

It’s hard to imagine a more striking study in musical contrasts than Patricia Barber and Natalie Cole. Both are singularly skilled at what they do, and both, I’ll safely bet, respect and, to a certain degree, envy the other’s professional capabilities. The essential difference is that Barber is an artist, Cole an entertainer. As such, the stage-shy Barber favors introspective didacticism, while Cole, blessed with an inbred aptitude for crowd-pleasing showmanship, prefers the brash brassiness of extroversion. Like the cities of their youths-Chicago and L.A., respectively-Barber is driven by cool, Midwestern level-headedness and Cole is ignited by Hollywood sizzle. Each has, in her own way, worked tremendously hard to achieve self-fulfilling success.

Barber’s early career struggles were of the bohemian starving-in-a-garret sort. Acceptance of her austere piano and vocal styles and her somber stage presence was slow in coming. Thanks, however, to word of mouth among the cognoscenti who congregated at the tiny (and sadly now defunct) Gold Coast Sardine Bar and the widening appeal of her self-produced debut album, Split, Barber’s popularity quickly spread beyond Chicago’s borders. The big labels came courting, but after a brief, claustrophobic dalliance with Polygram, Barber vowed never again to allow outside agendas to compromise her artistic integrity. And she never has. (Ask about her relationship with Blue Note and she’ll immediately explain that it is strictly a distribution and marketing deal. Her albums are produced through Chicago’s Premonition Records and she retains total creative control.)

Throughout the past decade Barber has crafted a stunning string of discs-Caf‚ Blue, Modern Cool, the cunning, live follow-up EP Companion and the exquisite standards collection Nightclub-that rank her as the most assured poet-troubadour to grace the American music scene since Joni Mitchell. Now with Verse, her first album devoted exclusively to her own compositions, Barber rivals Bobby McFerrin as post-millennial jazz’s most inventively individualistic singer-songwriter. Verse is a remarkable achievement.

Offering up 10 takes on love and life that are askeenly insightful as they are cerebral (name another songwriter who makes casual reference to the likes of Artemis, Descartes, Aristotle and Goya), Barber opens with “Lost in This Love,” a lively salute to the sweet discombobulation of newly minted infatuation. She then downshifts into “Clues,” a hypnotic examination of the obvious hints we all fail to recognize when romance begins to decompose. The like-minded “Pieces” does a dandy job of dissecting the hopeless process of reassembling one’s psyche after a hard-edged breakup, then probes the subsequent satisfaction of knowing that a sense of wholeness will someday return. On the eminently clever “I Could Eat Your Words,” Barber lights an intense flame beneath cool intellectuality to beget one of the most oddly sensual love songs ever written. Equally bracing is the shimmering “If I Were Blue,” an artful exploration of the shifting hues of relationships, from the aquamarine tranquility of David Hockney and the pale-blue contentedness of Picasso to the inky aloofness of Edward Hopper. Especially noteworthy, though, is “You Gotta Go Home,” all about an increasingly exasperating lover who has more than overstayed her welcome. It’s a wonderfully colorful yarn, and serves as proof that Barber is nowhere near as humorless as she’s often accused of being. (Though anyone familiar with Barber’s brilliant reshaping of Paul Anka’s ultramisogynistic “She’s a Lady” on Modern Cool knows full well that this is a woman with a marvelous, mischievous wit.)

Natalie Cole, as not only a child of incredible privilege but also the offspring of one of the most beloved performers of the past half-century, has arguably had an even tougher row to hoe than Barber. Despite mid-’70s R&B success with infectious hits like “This Will Be” and “I’ve Got Love on My Mind,” it took nearly 15 years for Cole to emerge from her father’s overwhelming shadow and establish her own voice. In 1991, thanks to the interjection of savvy producer Tommy LiPuma, Cole managed to shake off dad’s regal phantasm by cleverly embracing it, selling more than 14 million copies of the heartfelt homage Unforgettable. In the process, both she and the world discovered that Natalie was a formidable interpreter of classic jazz and pop anthems who, though never quite in Nat’s exalted league, could hold her own against such contemporary divas as Streisand and Midler.

Cole and LiPuma reunited in ’93 for the more diverse, and decidedly more interesting, Take a Look, which, lacking Unforgettable’s familial hook, failed to catch fire with critics or consumers. Now, nearly a decade after their last rendezvous, Cole has followed LiPuma to Verve for Ask a Woman Who Knows. It is, without question, their most adventurous and accomplished outing to date. Unfortunately, much of it is hampered by the same pesky problem that plagued both Unforgettable and Take a Look. LiPuma still has trouble tempering the shrillness that, though well-suited to Cole’s early soul-rock style, is now incongruous with her pop-jazz reincarnation.

Consider, for instance, their collaborative handling of “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” one of the most romantic ballads ever written. If Cole had remained subdued for the song’s entire four minutes (an achievable prospect, as George Duke, David Foster and Phil Ramone proved when they shared producer duties on Cole’s Stardust in 1996), the results would have been stunning. But LiPuma can’t resist getting her to stretch for those showy, and so often discordant, high notes. Cole’s cover of Dinah Washington’s playfully reflective “I Haven’t Got Anything Better to Do” suffers much the same fate, as do her otherwise lovely treatments of “You’re Mine You” and “So Many Stars.” Far more satisfying are the exuberant “Soon,” the bouncily infectious “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and the boisterous “It’s Crazy” (which sounds an awful lot like Nat’s “Orange Colored Sky”), all befitting Cole’s Vegasesque hardihood and her producer’s showstopper instincts.

The commercially minded LiPuma also teams Cole with labelmate Diana Krall for a breezy “Better Than Anything” that has M.O.R airplay written all over it. (For the record, their voices blend beautifully, though I still prefer Irene Kral’s hipper 1963 version.) The album’s real gem is a soft, swaying version of Michael Frank’s “Tell Me All About It,” gently reshaped as a seductive samba. Here Cole is clearly in control. Still, when she reaches the lyric’s midpoint and sings “I’m a lousy loner,” we know it’s the truth.

In contrast to the fiercely independent Barber, Cole seems most comfortable when steered by a masterful, if occasionally misguided, guru like LiPuma. It’s easy to picture an approval-seeking Cole turning to him after each take and asking, “Was that good for you?” Conversely, it’s just as simple to imagine Barber after laying down each of Verse’s tracks and wondering, “Was that good for me?”