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Patti Austin: For Ella

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I can understand singers crafting tributes to songwriters. For instance, I can’t imagine a vocal-jazz collection without Anita O’Day and Billy May Swing Rodgers and Hart or Rosemary Clooney’s Blue Rose or the various Ella Fitzgerald songbooks. But I find it harder to comprehend why singers pay tribute to other singers. Oh sure, I appreciate and respect the desire to tip one’s hat to personal heroes (Clooney’s Rosie Sings Bing and Dominique Eade’s Chris Connor and June Christy-inspired When the Wind Was Cool spring to mind), but often wonder what purpose it serves other than to draw pointless comparisons between the honoree and the honorer. It’s like Chicago dressing up as New York, or a T-bone masquerading as prime rib. Sometimes, though, it’s merely a case of semantics. Patti Austin has, for instance, opted for the short, snappy For Ella as the title of her latest album, when it would more accurately be named Patti Austin Uses Her Own Remarkable Voice and Unique Style to Interpret a Terrific Assortment of Standards, Some of Which Are Strongly Associated With Ella Fitzgerald. Austin, who has been honing her honey-glazed voice since age five, doesn’t need to hide behind Ella’s skirts to impress.

Backed by a 40-piece big band led by Patrick Williams (no stranger himself to idolatrous albums, having masterminded 1998’s boisterous Sinatraland), she shifts from the soft purr of “Our Love Is Here to Stay” and “The Man I Love” to the sassiness of “Satin Doll” and “Hard Hearted Hannah” with the smooth assuredness of the thoroughbred that she is. Her “Too Close for Comfort” bubbles, her “Honeysuckle Rose” sighs an appropriately satisfied sigh and her “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” is exhilaratingly fresh. Ironically, For Ella only falters when Austin offers up two thick slices of hero worship. Her attempt at an exact replication of Ella’s incomparable “How High the Moon?” seems not only strained but also flies in the face of scat’s inherent spontaneity. Far worse is the tribute tune “Hearing Ella Sing,” which is too corny by half and unworthy of an artist as distinctive as Austin.