Patti Austin - Sound Advice (2011)

Patti Austin
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Though never hitting the lofty career heights of many of her peers, Patti Austin has been a consistently pleasing and prolific artist since the late 60s.  And while many casual fans know her most for her work with Quincy Jones and James Ingram in the 80s, she has successfully straddled jazz, pop and soul for her entire career, creating both classic albums and, at times, discs that weren't worthy of her substantial talent.  Over the past decade, Austin has focused on her jazz interpretive skills, covering the music of Ella Fitzgerald (For Ella) and George Gershwin (Avant Gershwin) and winning her long overdue first Grammy Award.  And now, three years after her Grammy win, she has finally issued the much-awaited follow-up album, the new Sound Advice on Shanachie Records.

Though never hitting the lofty career heights of many of her peers, Patti Austin has been a consistently pleasing and prolific artist since the late 60s.  And while many casual fans know her most for her work with Quincy Jones and James Ingram in the 80s, she has successfully straddled jazz, pop and soul for her entire career, creating both classic albums and, at times, discs that weren't worthy of her substantial talent.  Over the past decade, Austin has focused on her jazz interpretive skills, covering the music of Ella Fitzgerald (For Ella) and George Gershwin (Avant Gershwin) and winning her long overdue first Grammy Award.  And now, three years after her Grammy win, she has finally issued the much-awaited follow-up album, the new Sound Advice on Shanachie Records.

Sound Advice is really two albums in one. There is the "unplugged" portion, consisting of three sparse, acoustic numbers Austin recorded a couple years ago with Shelly Berg and Gregg Field, and there is new, hotter work with former Michael Jackson music director/keyboardist and Toto group member Greg Philliganes.  And while each grouping of songs has its head scratchers, each also includes a transcendant moment that rivals the best work of Austin's enviable career.

The Berg/Field collaborations are melodic but safe, with generally uninspiring covers of well worn songs "My Way" and Don McLean's "Vincent".  But the trick up Austin's sleeve here is her own composition, the stunningly beautiful "By The Grace of God," a brilliant ballad that uses the simplicity of the light piano arrangement to its advantage, focusing all attention on Austin's performance -- and she gently sings her heart out, giving a truly seminal performance.

More interesting on the whole are the newer Phillinganes recordings that dominate Sound Advice. And none are better than the opening cut, a joyous reading of Des'ree's "You Gotta Be" that starts off engagingly and steadily builds to a glorious, choir-filled crescendo.  It approaches being a career moment for Austin, and rivals the well known hit original version of the song.  Austin also takes on, with varying levels of success, songs by some of the great rock performers of the 60s and 70s, including the Rolling Stones (a nice, version of "You Can't Always Get What You Want"), Bob Dylan (a solid, seven minute "You Gotta Serve Somebody") and Paul McCartney ("Let 'Em In," perhaps McCartney's weakest major hit and an unfortunate choice here).  And the disc is rounded out by strong covers of Brenda Russell's bouncy "A Little Bit of Love," the Jacksons' "Give It Up" and Bill Withers' oft-recorded "Lean On Me."

After recording classic jazz almost exclusively for the past decade, it is a nice surprise that Austin finds her way back to pop music on Sound Advice, and is even nicer that the disc is uniformly listenable and includes two of her finest career performances on "By The Grace of God" and "You Gotta Be."  For the audience that discovered Patti Austin during her 80s forays with Quincy Jones and Jam & Lewis, but who had trouble connecting with her jazz work, Sound Advice is a welcome stylistic return to her commercial halcyon days, with Austin sounding both convincing and relevant at age 60.  And for those fans who have stuck with Patti through her 20+ albums, Sound Advice is a fine addition to an already strong body of work.  Recommended.

By Chris Rizik

 
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