Listening Station

Patti Austin - Avant Gershwin (Rendezvous Entertainment)

patti austin During her rousing live shows, just before singing her #1 pop hit “Baby, Come To Me,” Patti Austin likes to joke with her audience that she’s about to do a “medley of my hit.” True, she never made it back to #1 on the pop charts, but her 16 album career over the past 30 years plays like a fascinating journey through pop, R&B, contemporary jazz and selections from The Great American Songbook. Avant Gershwin, her brilliant hour plus tour de force through both familiar and obscure—but consistently fascinating—selections from the catalog of George and Ira, is actually not the first time the versatile singer and entertainer has dazzled us with their songs. Her 1998 masterpiece of standards The Real Me included “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” And her 2002 tribute album For Ella—which paid homage to Austin’s idol, the First Lady Of Song, Miss Fitzgerald—included “Love Is Here To Stay,” “But Not For Me” and “The Man I Love.” Recorded live before an audience at the Kolner Philharmonic in Kohn, and Westfalenpark Dortmund, Germany over two evenings in 2006, Avant Gershwin is in many ways an extension of the Ella project. Both feature her performing with the powerful and brassy—not to mention, joyfully swinging--backing of the WDR Big Band, and Austin is well aware that nobody interpreted Gershwin as well or as often as Ella.

The album’s two incredible centerpieces are the “Overture/Gershwin Medley”—a 12 minute, multi moodswing romp through the big rhythm songs, “Clap Yo’ Hands,” “Fascinating Rhythm” and “I Got Rhythm”—and the overwhelming 17 minute “Porgy And Bess Medley.” The latter begins with a soft orchestral overture and a graceful take on “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing” and a gorgeous rendition of the familiar but always beautiful “Summertime” before shifting into swinging gear on the dramatic “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon For New York” and back down for the start of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” before a powerful finish. Besides exquisite arrangements and Austin’s dead on phrasing, perhaps the most inspired element of the collection is song choice. Rather than settle for the songs everyone’s heard a million times, with the exception of “Swanee,” she puts her own inimitable stamp on the romantic “I’ll Build A Stairway To Paradise,” the playfully witty and jazzy “Who Cares” and “Funny Face” and the tender and heartbreaking “Love Walked In/Love Is Sweeping The Country.” “Lady Be Good” provides a rousing and wild, jazzy and brassy finish, with Austin doing the kind of speedy scat that would do her idol proud.

Avant Gershwin is a must have for any Austin or Gershwin fan. The packaging, too, is lovely, with many stylish pics of the newly trimmed down singer. The only drawback is that there are some incredible instrumental solos on piano, guitar and trumpet and there are no individual credits for these exciting players who help Austin achieve immense artistic heights. On the other hand, who could ask for anything more?


                                                                                                            Jonathan Widran


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