Patti Austin was born to sing these songs. Rosemary Clooney told her that when she was a pop singer just starting to test these waters and every note she sings on this album affirms it. Her voice is so clear, expressive, and big that she can take any song and put the perfect nuance on every word. She goes beyond interpretation into transformation, bringing sophistication, intelligence, originality and a wicked sense of humor to this group of classics from the Great American Songbook. Avant Gershwin celebrates the avant-garde spirit of these songs both then and now.
Avant Gershwin is Austin's second collaboration with Germany's WDR Big Band. On For Ella, her 2002 release with WDR, she brought new life and relevance, as well as a new audience, to the great Ella Fitzgerald. Avant Gershwin does the same thing for George and Ira Gershwin. The arrangements, vocals, and song selection show how timeless and downright contemporary these songs are. There's frustration with the workday world, a veiled indictment of industries that profit from war, celebration of the redemptive powers of love and music, an ode to simplicity, a swingin' finger-wag at repressive values and an allusion to the fact that some of the more uptight among us could use a little more “zoom-zoom” in their lives.
This is a live recording and it plays like a theatrical production. The opening medley starts with a blast of horns and an invitation to “lose that evil spirit called the blues.” “Let me lead the way,” she sings and does just that with a 12 minute tour-de-force that combines trademark songs like “Fascinating Rhythm,” “I've Got Rhythm,” and “Strike Up The Band” with the mischievous double entendre heavy “Slap That Bass,” which she just works! It's a vocal showcase, with Austin shifting from powerful and strong to bluesy and slinky. She's a confident singer who can hold a big note without wavering and effortlessly jump from the top to bottom of her range. Listen to her scatting on “Lady Be Good,” hitting the high notes and holding them in “Who Cares,” getting in character and singing low on “It Ain't Necessarily So,” and switching to bright and whimsical on “Funny Face.” She pulls off some real contextual risks too. She chose to sing the male character's songs in her “Porgy and Bess” medley, which has her singing a cautionary tale about the wiles of her own gender in “A Woman is a Sometime Thing” along with with a sly rendering of “It Ain't Necessarily So” and an exuberant “I Got Plenty of Nothin' ” She also took “Swannee,” a song that had all kinds of social and political baggage from the vaudeville era and turned it into a rousing celebration of homecoming.
Michael Abene's arrangements mesh perfectly with Austin's vocals. They are big, brassy and cinematic when she belts one out, subtle and restrained when she's singing soft, shifting from big band to small combo to solo instrumentation when the music and mood require it. The dynamics throughout are striking, with big band arrangements segueing into solos or small group passages. There are ear-catching accents and melody lines
that are tailored to fit the nuance of the lyric she's singing. This is a band of virtuosos who have played about every type of jazz imaginable. It was recorded live with no trips to the studio to enhance a performance or redo a part. Listening to Avant Gershwin will spoil you with quality - the vocals, the musicianship, the arrangements, the songwriting. It's quite stunning. And it's a lot of fun. You'll find yourself having what Patti calls “armpit moments” where you're playing it at the house or in the car, singing along rather quietly so nobody will hear you until you just get this irresistible urge to throw your arms in the air and sing that big crescendo. That's the spirit of Avant Gershwin.
Visit the Avant Gershwin website and hear Patti Austin talk about the songs and the stories behind them on her “living liner notes”
- Shannon West