Patti Austin - Avant Gershwin (2007)

Patti Austin
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One night at the world-renowned Apollo Theatre, a four-year old girl was in the presence of blues great Dinah Washington, who let her goddaughter join her on stage.  After a few "Scooby Doo" looks, the mission was accomplished.  Henceforth, Patti Austin was on her way to an extremely satisfying, but underappreciated career.  The latest CD, Avant Gershwin, is a celebration and an "Austinized" take on the Gershwin songbook.  German-based WDR Big Band, which supported Austin on the delectable Ella Fitzgerald tribute, For Ella, is happily reunited with her for Gershwin.

One night at the world-renowned Apollo Theatre, a four-year old girl was in the presence of blues great Dinah Washington, who let her goddaughter join her on stage.  After a few "Scooby Doo" looks, the mission was accomplished.  Henceforth, Patti Austin was on her way to an extremely satisfying, but underappreciated career.  The latest CD, Avant Gershwin, is a celebration and an "Austinized" take on the Gershwin songbook.  German-based WDR Big Band, which supported Austin on the delectable Ella Fitzgerald tribute, For Ella, is happily reunited with her for Gershwin.

There's way more to this versatile talent then the Top 40 duet with James Ingram, "Baby Come To Me."  In addition to her the long tenure with godfather Quincy Jones and his Qwest label and her collaborations with Michael Jackson, Johnny Mathis, and the Dance/Latin jazz duo Masters At Work (MAW), Austin has put together an enviable discography of jazz and R&B albums that have made her a critical favorite, if not always a huge seller.

WDR's brief but frantic overture leads into the "Gershwin Medley."  Austin turns the tables on many familiar pieces with highlights including a syncopated "I've Got Rhythm," a sultry "Slap That Bass," and the Gospel-infused "Jubilee."  In between, "Fascinating Rhythm" is dropped at breakneck pace, without losing lyrical and musical articulation.   "I'll Build A Stairway To Paradise" then combines Broadway savvy and some blues belting.

Somehow Austin can sell outdated lyrics, making them sound relevant again.  Case in point, flipping the musical script into a samba for "Who Cares." "Funny Face" features a sassy side to Austin, however, the brass section's aggressive bridges tend to downgrade the mood.   "Love Walked In/Love Is Sweeping The Country," backed only by piano, is the quietest piece on the CD, but Austin's colorful sweeps speak volumes of everlasting hope. 

Sometimes it takes nerve to reconstruct a melody or lyric.  Almost every nuance from the Al Jolson version of "Swanee" is tossed out the window, as Austin swings with all her might, also replacing the "Mammy" word with Mama.

The Porgy & Bess Medley is an interesting seventeen minute smorgasbord, beginning with a haunting rendition of "A Woman Is A Sometime Thing."   Further in, Austin's robust voice encompasses "It Ain't Necessarily So," while the closing "I Got Plenty O' Nothin'" dabbles in funk sprinkled with be-bop attitude.   Ella's signature, "Lady Be Good", closes out and brings the house down, demonstrating solid vocal control, scatting lick for lick with the WDR soloists.

A leaner and almost unrecognizable Ms. Austin is right at home fronting a full orchestra, thanks to Michael Abene (Lionel Hampton, B.B. King) arrangements.  With minor exceptions, Avant Gershwin brings inspired and fresh insight to one of the most complex composers of our time.

By Peggy Oliver

[Editor's Note: Avant Gershwin won the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance on February 10, 2008]

 
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