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 didn
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.

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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