She Can Sing Anything

Patti Austin

Another busy week is done and I am still moving forward and working hard. This marks the second consecutive week that I attended a live performance. This is very unusual for me because I rarely attend live performances. Normally I view several videos of live performances in preparation for features in Weekly Music Commentary. This time I got the opportunity to see the outstanding singer/songwriter and longtime musical artist Patti Austin. The concert was part of the University of Miami’s month-long 2014 Festival Miami. In what was truly an intimate setting on the Coral Gables campus, Patti Austin would perform a tribute to renowned jazz artist Ella Fitzgerald. I am familiar with Patti Austin going back into the late 1970’s as her solo career began to take off. Her rise coincided with my college music education and my awareness of technical abilities of singers and composers alike. Patti Austin is what I call an “intelligent” singer. She seemed to be as musically sound as any artist of the 1980’s and so I gravitated toward her music. It is human nature to develop favorites in life, and music is no different from anything else. Everyone will favor one style of music over all others, even though we might listen to music of several genres. Musicians have favorites too, and most will tell you when asked what style they enjoy performing most. Patti Austin seems to enjoy jazz, bebop, blues, R&B and perhaps other styles of music equally. How did she develop this true appreciation of multiple music genres?

Austin, the daughter of jazz trombonist Gordon Austin and goddaughter of musical legends Quincy Jones and Dinah Washington, made her stage debut with Washington at the world-famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. With that type of musical foundation, I can understand how and why Austin developed into such a well-rounded vocalist. I have written before that my father was a jazz musician and insisted that I receive a complete music education, where I would have the ability to play any type of music. It would seem that Austin’s parents and godparents nurtured the natural talent of the young Patti Austin well, instilling within her a true appreciation for musicianship, over any style of music. You will hear a fine example of her musical abilities in her album Avant Gershwin, where Austin won the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. “You can judge a brilliant piece of music by how you can bend and stretch it, “said Austin. “I always believed George Gershwin to be avant-garde so I wanted to challenge myself and rework everything melodically and lyrically.”

In paying tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, Austin would gain another opportunity for a personal musical challenge. At the onset of the concert, Austin mentioned her respect for the abilities of Ella Fitzgerald. However, her tribute was more than singing some of the songs that became Ella Fitzgerald signature works. Patti Austin spoke about aspects of Ella Fitzgerald’s life that shaped her musical career, as well as events in her personal life that affected her artistic choices. As Patti Austin began to perform, I looked around the auditorium and thought this was a wonderful setting for this type of performance: the University Of Miami Frost School Of Music. Austin was providing half lecture, and half concert. Aiding Austin in her presentation was the University of Miami Studio Jazz Band, young students of jazz who performed admirably in accompaniment. Patti Austin went on to explain that in order for her to pay tribute to Ella Fitzgerald’s music, she had to learn about her in order to perform well. I had more than the usual appreciation because Patti Austin approached the Ella Fitzgerald tribute like a music historian, which included a lecture. In fact, before recording the Avant Gershwin album Austin said she researched and studied Gershwin similarly. That is quite a lesson for any up and coming musical artists.

Austin was extremely pleasant on stage, humorous and very down to earth. Perhaps that is because she was comfortable with the material and loved what she was singing. In retrospect, she always seemed that way, even thirty years ago while singing R&B music. In preparation for this week, I went back to listen and view a variety of Patti Austin performances and recordings. I listened to her duets with James Ingram, the songs she recorded with Steely Dan, Michael Jackson, George Benson and more. I also listened to a gem of an album Sound Advice, which Austin released in 2011. A search led me to a statement from a fan that I chose to use as the title to this post, “She can sing anything.” Indeed, I believe Patti Austin can sing anything and can possibly with any musician. We have a large catalog to prove it. If you think that Patti Austin is slowing down you are wrong. She has more music coming to the market in 2015. Stay tuned!

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