A half-decade has passed since Patti Austin channeled all that gorgeous, gutsy power of hers into the grand, Grammy-nominated For Ella. Since then, the Quincy Jones-sculpted songstress has been busy touring the world, co-creating the dynamic bebop-meets-Fitzgerald venture “BeboperElla” and appearing on two of last year’s most satisfying discs—adding fresh support to the vintage Ray Charles vocals at the heart of Ray Sings, Basie Swings, and contributing a sublime “Let It Rain” to George Benson and Al Jarreau’s Givin’ It Up. Now, at long last, Austin, less than two years shy of her 60th birthday and sounding finer than ever, has returned to the studio for this multi-hued meander through the Gershwin songbook.
As on the Ella tribute, Austin is provided expertly tailored backing by Germany’s dexterous WDR big band, an ensemble equally at home with the shy, gentle sunniness of “Funny Face” and the brassily uninhibited joy of “Lady Be Good.” While Avant-Gershwin proves a consistently impressive exercise in seamless collaboration, two superbly constructed medleys—a 12-minute tour de force that weaves together “I Got Rhythm,” “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” “Slap That Bass” and “Strike Up the Band,” and a 17-minute rollercoaster ride through the emotional highs and lows of Porgy and Bess—emerge as standouts for both singer and orchestra. Though it’s a little early in the year for such predictions, count on this lustrous gem to put Austin back in the Grammy race and, with any luck, nab the trophy that has too long eluded her.