Modern Cool has everything that made cafe blue special: original songs, simultaneously aloof and inclusic, with their crystallizations of private late-20th century moments; outside-the-box choices for covers from the popular repertoire; spare, sleek, telling arrangements by Barber's working quintet; startling sound quality by engineer Jim Anderson.
But Modern Cool has more. The originals are stronger. "Silent Partner" is roughly a love song, if that term can apply to an ambivalent submission to the loss of selfhood. "Company" is a devastating dramatization of the vacuous, high-tech pretensions of our stylized time. "Let It Rain" and "Winter" trace delicate validations of the personal in the meterological. The covers find Barberesque insights and paradoxes in such unlikely places as Paul Anka's "She's A Lady." Her interpretations of "Light My Fire" and "You And The Night And The Music" give new connotations to every word.
In the arrangements, with their open spaces, each player is fills a role. When Arnopol's bass and Walker's drums push their halting dance or when Barber's piano and JOhn McLean's guitar make stabs of color, it is for one purpose: to set the rapr atmosphere for another Barber story about ghosts of the heart. What saves Barber from melodrama is the cutting edge of her language and her self-inflicted irony. "Can't you hide the kindness in your eyes/that leaves me bleeding?" she inquires in"Silent Partner." "For company/I like lots of MTV/...contrived to/take me far away from me" she confesses in "Company."
The addition of Dave Douglas' trumpet on several pieces spins a whole new dimension within Barber's universe. (He is clarion and bent and beautiful on the wordless "Constantinople.") The entrance of a roomful of voices called the Choral Thunder Vocal Choir dramatically expands "love, put on your faces," a Barber adaptation of a poem by E.E. Cummings.
Sonically, Modern Cool is one of the best recordings ever made by a jazz singer with a small acoustic ensemble. Engineer Jim Anderson gets all the depth and power of Michael Arnopol's bass, but he also keeps the other instruments in balance, incised in space. Barber's voice, floating dead center, is so alive you can feel her breath on your face.