At this late date, as the 20th Century recedes ever more quickly into the past, can anyone have anything significant to add to the work of America's most suavely literate songwriter, Cole Porter?
Can anyone hope to find subtext in Porter's lyrics that Frank Sinatra didn't unearth decades ago? Can anyone dare to bring half as much sensuousness of sound to Porter's insinuating melodies as Ella Fitzgerald once did?
Apparently yes, though one hastens to note that the Chicago singer-pianist Patricia Barber's newest CD, The Cole Porter Mix (Blue Note Records), to be released Tuesday, does not attempt to go where Sinatra, Fitzgerald and other past masters already have traversed. No point in that.
Sinatra's sometimes brooding, sometimes euphoric interpretations of Porter's classics perhaps always will remain the standard against which future interpretations are measured. And Fitzgerald's stunning flights of invention on Porter's tunes face no real competition and likely never will. Her lightning scat technique cannot be replicated.
But like all great jazz artists, Barber in The Cole Porter Mix has brought her own vision to the music at hand, and in so doing she has reinvented works that we might have thought we already knew. If the first line of credit goes to Porter, for having penned lyrics and melodies that withstand constant re-examination, Barber has met the man on his own terms. In effect, she radically has reworked familiar music without crushing the spirit of the originals, a significant achievement.