Elegant Sensuality, Inventive Musicality: Patti Austin, Avant Gershwin

By Daniel Garrett

Patti Austin
Avant Gershwin
Producers: Michael Abene and Patti Austin
Producer, WDR Big Band: Lucas Schmid
Executive Producers: Dave Koz, Hyman Katz, Frank Cody
Rendezvous Entertainment, 2007

A blast of horns followed by a blast of Patti Austin’s voice is how Patti Austin’s album of energy and sass, elegance and spirit, Avant Gershwin, begins: the song collection is an exploration of Gershwin that places the singer in a league that might leave her lonely but proud. In a voice of femininity, flexibility, and force, a voice of grace, Austin—if she has not done so before—enters the pantheon, singing “come on children, gather ‘round,” singing a five-song Gershwin medley that includes “I Got Rhythm” and “Fascinating Rhythm.” Patti Austin sings “Fascinating Rhythm” so fast (nearly breathless allegro), it is a wonder it does not lose all meaning and become sheer sound: she illustrates the song with her technique. “Zoom, zoom, the world is in a mess,” Patti Austin sings, making a reference to politics, which can be relegated to more mundane times—and “slap that bass,” she sings, sensually: and Austin sounds free, happy, and exuberantly musical! And hers is an invigorating collaboration between singer and band, and the band builds mountains of sound that Patti Austin climbs easily.

I was amused to find that Patti Austin sings a song called “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” a song that warns against prohibitive values, warns against prohibiting dancing and stirring music, a song that celebrates acts of creation, energy, motion: the song, with horns and drums and trumpet and what sounds like a trombone, rejects sadness, and advocates gladness, and vows to “build a stairway to paradise with a new step every day.” These are marching orders a free man could accept.

Avant Gershwin is an admirable, beautiful production. Patti Austin, with bright red lips and shoulder-length hair, is featured on its cover in an elegant black ball gown and long black gloves, looking happy, glamorous, sensuous. Austin’s other recordings include End of a Rainbow, featuring “In My Life” and “More Today Than Yesterday,” andGettin’ Away with Murder, featuring “The Heat of Heat,” and The Real Me, featuring “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and the albums Carry On, Live, That Secret Place, Street of Dreams, and On the Way to Love. Five years ago, Patti Austin released For Ella which received much critical acclaim. Avant Gershwin was recorded live in Germany in March and August of year 2006 and released a few months later in the new year.

“Who cares what the public chatters, love’s the only thing that matters,” sings Austin, a great fount of energy, in a song—“Who Cares”—that dismisses business, society, and even the natural environment in the name of love. The song would be nothing more than romanticism were it not for the singer’s authority: it is an affirmation of self, and an affirmation of a relationship, in an inhospitable world, a world that only recognizes what can be turned to practical account. The music: curling rhythms of horns, a soft brush of percussion, and warm notes on strings and a trumpet. Austin follows that song with the cheery and charming “Funny Face.”

With only a piano as accompaniment, Patti Austin sings in a quiet voice, a ballad-beginning to a medley of “Love Walked In” and “Love is Sweeping the Country,” with the first having lyrics that speak of a life of meaningless drift until love walks in: “love walked right in and drove the shadows away” and “one look and I forgot the gloom of the past.” Patti Austin, though quite able to suggest nuance, has a robust sound that inspires respect (one thinks of health, one thinks of strength). When she sings of feelings passional on their way to becoming national, she inspires belief—as the possibility seems an extension of her own feelings.

A sophisticated woman’s memory of her small-town southern home is the interpretation—delicate, direct, passionate, plain—Patti Austin gives to the old, sentimental, sometimes embarrassing song “Swanee” and leaving her lips, there is nothing questionable about it at all: beginning with a low, slow (adagio) opening that turns into a rousing celebration (and with the strategic changing of the word “mammy” to “mama” and the spelling of the letters of Dixie rather than saying the word whole), Austin achieves a peerless interpretation.

The Avant Gershwin collection’s “Porgy and Bess Medley” is another tour de force. Between a mother’s humbling instructions and a lover’s deceptive attention, a “woman is a sometime thing.” (How Austin manages singing that and not sounding misogynist or self-incriminating is fascinating.) Reflective and sonorous—really beautiful ballad singing—is Austin’s “Summertime,” and she is honest and sly when she sings “things that you’re liable to read in the bible, it ain’t necessarily so.” (I kept smiling throughout listening to Avant Gershwin.) “I ain’t frettin’ about hell until the time arrives,” she sings in “I Got Plenty of Nothing.”

Patti Austin, in the last song of Avant Gershwin, is a lonesome person in the city asking for kindness in “Lady Be Good,” the song Ella Fitzgerald used to get such a kick out of (and give such a kick to), and with blasting horns and intense rhythms—forte, a challenge of loud sound—Austin, a master of crescendo, meets the challenge and sings and scats through the song and makes the song as much hers as it can be anyone but Ella’s after all these years.

Daniel Garrett, a New York resident, is a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House; and his work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The City Sun, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, NatCreole.com, Offscreen.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. His commentaries on Sinatra, Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, K.D. Lang, and Madeleine Peyroux have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com