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Patti Austin: Avant Gershwin

By Published: May 8, 2007
AAJ: I think it was such an inspired choice to have recorded some of these songs in form of a medley. One rarely hears medleys anymore.

PA: I remember when I told [arranger/conductor/producer] Michael [Abene] that I wanted to do a couple of medleys, he said, "Medleys? Are you crazy? No one does medleys anymore. So, I said, "That is exactly why I want to do them. I am one of the five people left on planet earth that even knows how to think about writing a medley.

AAJ: Well it is great because there are so many Great American Songbook albums on the market, and your album is wonderfully distinctive.

PA: Well the other thing is that so many people ask me how I put this record together, and the bottom line is—I was not putting a record together, I was putting a live concert together that was broadcast all over Germany simultaneously. As I was doing this live concert in a symphony hall, it was going out over the radio. People in Germany listen to the radio on Sunday afternoons or Sunday evenings. It is kind of like the American tradition of watching Ed Sullivan.

This series happens during the summer so they are usually out picnicking. The Germans like to get out a lot; they like to walk outdoors, they have beautiful parks all over the country and so people take their radios and they listen to this broadcast. It is a heavy thing, so you think to yourself, "Is whatever I am doing live for this live audience going to transcend to the audience listening on the radio? So I was really trying to put together almost a theatrical piece. It needed to translate to the live audience but it also needed to translate to the audience listening to the radio.

AAJ: It definitely does have that theatrical quality to it.

PA: I kept telling Michael how I wanted it arranged. I told him to think cinematic. I told him that the arrangements had to be so colorful that when you closed your eyes, you created a visual in your mind—like every musical I ever grew up watching on TV or at the movies. The Gershwins wrote for all of those films. When I was putting the opening medley together that is what I was thinking about—all of those magnificent musicals and all of those images that go through my mind when I think of those songs. I told Michael, "Think of movie musicals and think that you can't go to the movies, but you still need to think that you're at the movies. Somehow, he understood what that meant and I think so brilliantly translated that and just made it wonderful, cinematic arrangements. That is really what they are.

AAJ: It translates beautifully and it is a wonderful listening experience.

PA: We were all focused on the tradition of the golden age of recording. My manager and I would talk about how when we were teenagers, we would race to the record store to bring it home and play it. You would look at that cover, read the liner notes, put it on and go on a journey; and you would not have to lift the needle off of anything because every cut had something fabulous to grab you with.

On this project we knew that we were dealing with some of the best material in the world, so as long as we didn't mess it up, we would be OK—kind of like the Democrats. If we stayed out of our own way, we were going to be alright. The idea was that, you would want to hear this album from beginning to end because, that is what you have to accomplish when you are onstage doing a live performance. We wanted to keep the audiences' interest piqued from one tune to the next, and one segue into the next, and deliver the maximum amount of material.

When you look at the body of work from the Gershwins, it is kind of frightening. It is like they were sent by God to drop off a package and send them back in another two hundred years to do something magnificent. We just scratched the surface of their body of work, and isn't that fascinating?

AAJ: There are songs upon songs, all equally brilliant. Do you think that there will be another album like this in your future?

PA: I think we will do a ton of these. When my manager first suggested that we do this type of an album, it was our goal to continue to do the Great American Songbook and tribute records to various artists. There will definitely be more.

I will probably be recording a Dinah Washington record. I have had a hard time getting to it because I am still very emotional about Dinah's passing. It surprises me at this point, I just did a tune on Luther Vandross' record: Forever, for Always, for Luther II (Rendezvous, 2006), and I barely got through it; and when I finally heard it, I completely broke down and was sobbing. So I will have to really get myself together to approach an entire album of Dinah Washington.

Duke Ellington may very well be the next composer that we do a tribute to. We are going to continue to go back with WDR because we have a great relationship with them and we will continue to make these types of records.

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