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Patti Austin: Lady Be Good

Patti Austin
Patti Austin

Everything about veteran vocalist Patti Austin seems larger than life. Once you’ve seen, heard or met Austin, you don’t soon forget her. Her sense of humor is outsized, her personal presence powerful, her frequent laughter infectious, her opinions unshakeable, and the lady is as voluble a talker as she is talented in singing. Her musical beginnings are also auspicious. The daughter of a trombonist and a singer, Austin can claim both the late Dinah Washington and prolific Quincy Jones as her godparents. She first aired her vocal talents at age 5 and has been performing jazz, pop and R&B in public ever since.

Austin’s musical abilities are prodigious and well documented, encompassing 19 solo albums and countless appearances on pop, jazz and R&B recordings since the ’70s. She’s charted pop hits on her own and with James Ingram, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson and others. Further, her powerful yet velvety warm pipes have embellished numerous advertising jingles, and Austin has consistently toured around the world performing in concerts and theatrical works, and she’s even appeared in such films as Tucker: The Man and His Dream and on the tv sitcom For Your Love.

While Austin’s spirit, humor and commitment to the jazz canon are all larger than life, the singer herself is no longer plus-sized. After struggling with her weight for many years- including periods of time when she was well over 300 pounds-the green-eyed beauty dropped down to a svelte size 8 in 2005, courtesy of a medical wakeup call that led to gastric bypass surgery. Always outspoken about the unreasonable demands the Hollywood system makes on its female stars, a healthier Austin has re-dedicated herself to educating new generations about the power and majesty of live jazz, and schooling her peers, particularly in the African-American community, about the benefits of adopting a healthier lifestyle.

Doing things in a big way is part of Austin’s style, and she continues the theme on her brand-new Concord/Rendezvous Records release Avant Gershwin. Released in March, the live set-recorded at two WDR concerts in Cologne, Germany-finds Austin belting out both tried-and-true nuggets and lesser-known gems from the Gershwin songbook with the WDR Big Band. Whether breathing fiery life into such unusual Gershwin fare as “Slap That Bass” or “Stairway to Paradise,” caressing the time-worn lullaby “Summertime” or swinging boldly with the rarely heard “Swanee,” Austin confronts the listener with the big, brassy idea that Gershwin is still the most contemporary and relevant of popular tunesmiths, not merely a sentimental songbook elder of yore.

“That’s why we call it Avant Gershwin,” explains Austin. “I said I want to take those tunes, I want to put them in a jazz genre but I want to make the grooves more contemporary, more modern, so somebody that’s young will hear it and go, ‘Damn! That’s some hip stuff.'”

The project is part of what Austin has planned as a series of live recordings celebrating some of the great composers and performers of the golden age of jazz. The series got its start in 2002 with the release of the Grammy-nominated For Ella, also recorded live with the WDR Big Band in Germany. The tribute to Ella Fitzgerald found Austin putting her own stamp on many of the songs associated with the late jazz great, and painstakingly re-created Fitzgerald’s indelible scat runs on “How High the Moon” and “Mr. Paganini.”

So how does a popular African-American recording artist wind up making great jazz records in Germany? “I’ve been going there for about 12 years now on and off. Every few years they call me,” she explains of the WDR system in Cologne. “They do an American tribute every year in their American pop music series, and they bring in American artists to arrange or compose, and they commission new pieces if they do cover stuff. The first time they had me come in it was to do my own music and the next time it was to do my favorite jazz female vocalists…I gave them three [choices that] they narrowed down to one, and that’s how For Ella happened.”

Like that project, Avant Gershwin’s musical program was originally intended as the focus of two live concert performances, but the intensive rehearsal process, often utilizing the string section from the WDR symphony orchestra, was always recorded. Austin says she and manager Barry Orms became interested in what happened to the tapes. “Once my manager realized that’s the way that they worked, we said, ‘Why aren’t we recording this? It’s kind of dumb to walk away from this project without a recording, and we should film it, and we should do this and we should do that.”

Where the For Ella project was completed with the WDR Big Band under the direction of Patrick Williams, the new Avant Gershwin was a collaboration between Austin and keyboardist, composer, arranger and producer Michael Abene, whose long list of credits includes work with Buddy Rich, Anita O’Day, Dave Grusin, Liza Minnelli, Maynard Ferguson and more. Abene has also written numerous commercial jingles, and he and Austin first met some 30 years ago while working in the lucrative jingle business.

Austin says that choosing the music and creating the challenging arrangements with Abene-who’s been working with WDR for years as a resident composer-was a delight. “He comes from that school of music where there’s tremendous versatility,” Austin explains. “You have to be able to arrange and compose everything when you work in the ad business, because you don’t know when your client’s going to want you to do a baroque piece or some hip-hop. He comes from that. So I had no idea how that was gonna work with Michael, but I was gonna go in the trenches with him.”

After years of working studios in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles alongside some of the top pop, jazz and commercial producers, Austin had plenty of experience as a vocal arranger. The idea of revitalizing the Gershwin material seemed to incite a girlish enthusiasm, particularly in the album’s two medleys, one a combination of Gershwin tunes about music itself, and the other a rich compilation of themes from the folk opera Porgy and Bess. She continues, “I said OK, Michael, there’re all these Gershwin tunes that are about rhythm and music and I wanna find them all and put ’em all together in some kind of order. He said OK. And I said, ‘I want to do a medley of all the Porgy and Bess stuff, but I don’t want to do all the ‘Lawd lawd, he done left me’ stuff. I want to do all the fun stuff, the guy stuff, the Sportin’ Life stuff. Cause to me he’s got all the really cool stuff. And I’ll do an obligatory version of ‘Summertime’ only because I’m so tired of people screaming that song and it’s a frickin’ lullaby. So could we throw in ‘Summertime’ and make it what it’s supposed to be, this gentle, beautiful, elegant moment?'”

With the veteran singer spinning out a wealth of ideas, Abene had to clear a number of hurdles to make the arrangement big, bold and completely unique while providing a groove for Austin’s vocals to glide through. “I always wanted to go a little bit Broadway as far as the vocals were concerned. I wanted to do them really bombastic and passionate because Gershwin, most of what he wrote and became really famous for was for theater to begin with,” says Austin of the in-your-face performances captured on Avant Gershwin. “I was just kind of borrowing different elements from wherever, and Michael is just 70 percent of that. Ideas are a dime a dozen-everybody with an orifice has one-but implementing it is another thing and that’s what Michael did…He translated brilliantly whatever I was trying to tell him in my own pathetic, girl-singer way. He got it, and so that’s why this project was tremendously fun.”

Austin said that working in Germany has also become a real joy, because of the government support for the music programs and the general European reverence for the jazz idiom. In addition, the country’s audio engineering precision is world-renowned. “WDR is the government-run organization in Cologne that puts all of this together,” she explains. “They have their own TV station and radio facility, their own theater, stages where they perform, concert halls-all WDR. The arts in Europe are supported by the government, not just in Germany but Italy, France-everywhere. There is some kind of infrastructure that supports the arts, unlike here. And ironically, it all focuses on the excellence of American music.”

With Abene, Austin crafted an album that isn’t the typical selection of Gershwin standards, nor is it a cozy little listen. Her version of “Fascinating Rhythm” bounds along with bursts of brass, while the rarely heard “Slap That Bass” becomes a slinky commentary on music soothing political turmoil. With elegant, sexy precision, Austin swings on a galloping “Lady Be Good” complete with intricate scat sequences where she trades licks with various members of the horn section. What’s astonishing about the recording is the level at which Austin consistently pushes herself, and the fact that it’s all live. “That’s the other thing that freaks everybody out-they hear the applause and they’re like, ‘What? That was live?’ But that’s where that energy comes from,” Austin explains. “I can only do that kind of a performance with an audience there, because again, that’s the form-it was written to stimulate the audience, and the audience stimulates the actors and away you fly.”

Listeners may be surprised to find that Austin has included a swinging, brassy version of Al Jolson’s “Swanee,” which mentions the Stephen Foster staple “Old Folks at Home”-a tune that has long been a nettle in the side of conscious African-Americans for its unfettered longing for a segregated Old South where Mammy was a-waitin’. But it’s the new South-a place where thousands of African-Americans relocate to from the big cities up north every year-that Austin wanted to salute. “Nobody does ‘Swanee,’ because everybody thinks Al Jolson and Judy Garland-‘Lawdy, lawdy, it’s about the South!'” she jokes in typical raucous style. “But first of all, I’m not going to use the word ‘mammy,’ I’m gonna talk about my mama, and I want it to be like this love poem to the South because my peeps love the South. The South nurtured us through, there are people who love the South. So I said, I wanna just rock it.”

The appeal of big-band music has trickled down from the first wave of baby boomers to their children and grandchildren. Austin is witnessing this appeal first-hand as she tours the country, and the fans that come to speak to her range widely in age, from teenaged student musicians to septuagenarian fans. Austin says the resurgent interest in big-band music in high schools and colleges is encouraging. In the week before the Grammy Awards, Austin was in Los Angeles to perform with the Gibson/Baldwin Jazz Ensemble, a collection of top music students from high schools across the country. The singer also conducted vocal master classes at this year’s Grammy in the Schools program held at the University of Southern California for high school students.

With her WDR recording series kicked off (Duke Ellington is being considered for the next recording), Austin’s other mission is to educate and encourage the next generation in their appreciation of jazz heroes. “We’re starting a mentorship program, a master class program,” she explains. “I’m gonna teach kids how to perform. It’s as transforming for me as it is for them.”

Austin says the younger generation’s fascination by the live element is a backlash against today’s popular sounds. “I think this generation got this way because my generation was totally traumatized by the events of history. We were reeling. You don’t understand how you’re hanging confetti in your junior high school for your first dance and it comes over the radio that your president’s been shot and killed. And then you’re sitting at home with your folks and find out MLK’s been killed and then you find out Bobby Kennedy’s been killed, then you find out Malcolm X has been killed,” she says. “While we were enduring all that trauma we were raising another generation. But the music is always reflective of all of that, and that’s why this music is so damn powerful.”

The outspoken artist is consistent in her desire to serve the composers and progenitors of the music by serving it up in its purest form. And that means getting out of her own way. On her Live album released by GRP in 1992, Austin-a great mimic-does a comedic interlude on the topic of “vocal affectations,” where she does spot-on imitations of other popular singers (including Michael McDonald, Cher, Anita Baker, Michael Jackson and James Ingram), and then notes that she doesn’t have “a thing” that she does consistently. Austin explains that while some artists are known for their yelps, groans, hiccups, unique phrasing or vibrato, she prefers to let the songs become the most memorable part of her performances.

Inspired by the great Judy Garland, whom Quincy Jones took her to see at the Newport Jazz Festival when she was still a pre-teen, Austin says that although the great film and music star was in decline, her narrative skills were still unassailable. “She could barely sing a lick and it didn’t matter because her storytelling and her charisma and her presence onstage and the way she delivered a song, you just felt every single word she sang,” says Austin. “So I always look at singing as acting. So if you give me a song, I have to become the character of that song, and that’s how I’m gonna sing that song. And that does not involve my doing a lot of yodeling or warbling and putting my signature on it. I don’t want to put my signature on the song. I want the song to put a signature on me.”

Austin is wearing her song signatures very nicely these days, thank you. Slimming down has boosted the singer’s energy, and no doubt lengthened her life. It’s still a great joke to her that within months of her Sept. 2004 surgery, after rapidly shedding 100 pounds, longtime friends barely recognized the glamorous, slender singer as the zaftig diva they’d known. But when Austin first went to a specialist seeking medical attention, it was not for a weight-loss quick fix. It was to address a problem she’d been having with her knee where standing on stage for any length of time was becoming impossibly painful. What she got was a life-saving intervention.

Suffering from type 2 diabetes at that point, and so overweight that anesthesia and heart monitoring would be tricky during surgery, Austin was shocked by the doctor’s recommendation. “He walks in and says, ‘You’re having a gastric bypass.’ He didn’t ask me, he told me. ‘You’re gonna go downstairs and you’re gonna make an appointment now. Because I love you and I love your music and you’re a beautiful woman and you’re gonna be a more beautiful woman,'” Austin remembers. “And I’m screaming inside, I’m crying. The first thing out of my mouth is: ‘Gastric bypass? That’s for people that have at least 100 pounds to lose.’ And he looked at me and he looked at my chart and he said: ‘Duh!'”

The New York-born singer says she had long been in denial about her weight issues. While not overweight as a child, constantly touring and performing as a young woman without access to regular exercise or healthful meals as well as stress, much of which came from dealing with unwanted attention from men, had turned Austin into a big eater as an adult. The death of her mother, whom she had been caring for, also added strain. “I had buried myself in denial, which gets to that whole place you have to take yourself to circumvent the trauma of the way people respond to you. So you lie to yourself. You have to hit that wall, whether it’s drugs, a boyfriend or food, you gotta hit your personal worst and sometimes that’s not even enough-you still need a bitch slap. I had to get a bitch slap from an amazing doctor who was about saving black folks’ lives.”

As a large woman in the music industry, Austin has always been respected for her talents. She laughs when noting that as a vocalist in the States, people assumed she was a blues singer and in Europe, her size led people to believe she was an opera star. But American culture has never been kind to the obese. “I know what you have to go through psychologically to get through the day, because people do not treat you well when you are fat,” she says. “It’s ugly. It says a lot about our lack of evolution as a species, but that’s the way it is. And it makes you very hard for you to go in the street and feel confident and feel whole and feel beautiful when everybody is looking at you like, ‘You big fat pig, get out of my way.’ It hurts a lot.” Last year Austin joined a bevy of smooth-jazz and pop artists-including Kirk Whalum, Norman Brown, Gerald Albright, Maysa, Will Downing and others-to record a second volume of Forever, For Always, For Luther, the benefit collection that pays tribute to the late vocalist Luther Vandross, who died in 2005 after complications from a diabetes-induced stroke. Austin contributed a reading of Vandross’ “So Amazing” that has become a smooth-jazz radio hit. But Austin also took on another role in connection to the project: Spokeswoman for the American Heart Association’s “The Power to End Stroke” campaign.

“My mother died from complications from strokes and my dad died from complications from diabetes, so my getting involved in the situation is very personal,” says Austin, who was able to beat her strain of diabetes after shedding a total of 140 pounds after her surgery. “And of course it took away my brother-it took Luther away from me.”

Now Austin finds herself with another mission: Helping others beat life-threatening conditions like heart disease, obesity and stroke by adopting a healthier lifestyle. She has conducted press conferences and seminars on the subject, and is making health one of the major topics at an upcoming women-only cruise event she is planning to produce in 2008. And she wants overweight women to get the message, though she adds that gastric bypass surgery is not the quick fix that many assume it is. “This is the stuff I’ve been talking about-how to take all of that power that it takes for you to walk through that each day and use it to make yourself healthier and get off the ‘How do I look?’ trip and get on the ‘How do I feel?’ trip, which will automatically turn around…and get you onto the ‘How do I look?’ trip,” she says.

The rest of 2007 is filled with a series of concert dates, special master classes, seminars, and overseas performances as Austin brings her twin messages of jazz appreciation and self-appreciation to fans and non-fans alike. The artist, who celebrates her 57th birthday on Aug. 10, says at this stage of life, she’s ready for clear-eyed honesty in all areas of existence.

“It’s just in your face,” she says of her Avant Gershwin performance, adding, “and I think it’s time for in your face with everything-really. Life. Politics. Love. Passion. We’ve gotta wake up and start feeling and feel stuff that’s good and stuff that’s bad.” Originally Published