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Patti Austin: Avant Gershwin

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On this project we knew that we were dealing with some of the best material in the world, so as long as we didnt mess it up, we would be O.K. -- kind of like the Democrats. If we stayed out of our own way, we were going to be alright.
Patti AustinPatti Austin began her incandescent career at the age of four. The daughter of trombonist Gordon Austin, and goddaughter of Quincy Jones and Dinah Washington, has emerged stronger than ever. After a bout with diabetes, she decided to undergo gastric bypass surgery and the result has been remarkable. She is in superb form, both physically and artistically, as evidenced by Avant Gershwin (Rendezvous, 2007); which celebrates some of the most beloved songs written by the ingenious George Gershwin.

From "Porgy and Bess, and "Summertime" to the most emotive track, "Swanee," Avant Gershwin is certain to appeal to an array of audiences, and connect with some new ones, too. Patti Austin brings something new to these much loved songs and the outcome in itself, is inspiring. Her charismatic performance on Avant Gershwin is nothing short of spectacular.

All About Jazz caught up with the ever-flourishing songstress to discuss her luminous magnum opus.

All About Jazz: Avant Gershwin is such a wonderful creation. Why did you decide to record a Gershwin album? It must have been an easy decision to record such treasured compositions.

Patti Austin: For the last ten or twelve years, I have been working with the WDR Big Band and orchestra. I did another project with them prior to this, which was a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, For Ella (Playboy Jazz, 2002), and prior to that they had asked me to come and do an evening of my own music.

Every year, they do at least one or two weeks of classic American jazz-oriented music. The first time they asked me to do my own material and the second time they asked me to pick my favorite female jazz vocalist and I picked Ella. This last time, they asked me to pick my favorite American composer from the Great American Songbook and I chose George Gershwin; so that is how we came up with the subject matter. Once we had the music we decided to bend it and twist it and re-shape it wherever possible to expand upon the style of it.

AAJ: "Stairway to Paradise, for me, is so reminiscent of An American in Paris. Although I was taken back to that movie while listening to your rendition, you really manage to engage the listener in the moment, and it is truly extraordinary for an artist to bring something new to a song that is so timeless and yet so distinctive at the same time.

PA: Well, thank you! That is what we were hoping to do, but just because you hope, doesn't necessarily mean that it will translate to everyone else. The major joy of this project has been that everyone achieved their intention, and that makes it so much fun. The idea was to bridge the gap between a whole generation who doesn't even know the material or who has never paid attention to it, and a generation that knows it—but knows it a certain way, a hokey way and loves it that hokey way. The idea was to not alienate that last group.



George Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess at his mid to late thirties, right before he died and it is amazing that he was able to leave such a legacy at the age. I don't even remember my thirties, never mind I wrote Porgy and Bess. People don't really understand how young he was. He was a tremendous young man and look at the body of work that he left behind—it is unbelievable.

AAJ: It is truly unbelievable, there are songs upon songs. Speaking of "Porgy and Bess," you omitted some of the misogynistic messages contained therein, to portray a stronger female role. Was that a deliberate choice to record this song in order to make this statement?

PA: With "Porgy and Bess" I definitely was trying to do the tough material because the men played all of the tough characters and the women were crying, begging and praying which are things that women have done in the theatre, and in the world. I loved the messages so much of the male characters' songs, that I decided that those were the ones that I wanted to cover. I had to record "Summertime" because you don't record "Porgy and Bess" and then not record "Summertime;" which I incidentally discovered is either tied for, or is the number one recorded song in the world. I wanted to do songs that had masculine, and tongue-in-cheek lyrics.

AAJ: I love what you did with "Swanee;" replacing "mammy with "mama. I think that there was a definite need for that to be updated, in that way.

PA: Definitely, that was absolutely on purpose. I wanted to update the message of that song, and just changing that word accomplished it. I knew that there are a lot of young black people who are moving back to the south—that grew up in the south. There are a lot of older people retiring back to the south—who grew up there and moved away.

The south is a very hip and fabulous place, at this point in time. The south has continued to fight the good fight, like every other place in America; but it has been tarnished with its history because it has not been the most forward-thinking place in the past. I think because there was so much attention focused on the south and its attitudes about race, it was forced to confront its attitude much more than other places in the country, which I think at this particular point in time are lagging behind the south when it comes to how they are dealing with race.

I felt that "Swanee" was a great anthem for the south and for people who love the south; it just needed to be brought into the twenty-first century, and it would still work as a song. I decided to change the groove of it completely, so that it was something that people could get up and rock to. I love watching people listen to the song. It is a great song for me to perform because the audience really gets into it; particularly black folks because they have this look of horror on their face when the song starts, but then I get into it, and where the part comes up where the usual word "mammy is—they are all holding their breath. Everybody is up dancing and rocking, and the people who are not from the south wish they were, by the time I am finished with the song.


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