March 2007

Patti Austin - Avant Gershwin
Rendezvous 5123
Format: CD
Released: 2007

by Katherine Silkaitis

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

The number of vocal albums dedicated solely to the music of George Gershwin is staggering. Many of these albums sound very similar to one another, but Patti Austin’s addition to the melange, Avant Gershwin, isn’t another pebble in the pond. Austin’s album is original, creative, boisterous and, yes, even good.

Avant Gershwin does not sound like a generic jazz-standards album. If anything, a lot of it sounds as though it could have been ripped from a Cameron Mackintosh Broadway production. But even if that genre is less than enticing for some, Austin does it so well it’s hard to not admire her voice, stamina and, most of all, the arrangements. She throws old-guard ideas of Gershwin arrangements out the window, singing the male parts in the "Porgy and Bess Medley" and opening the album with a 12-minute medley. This track, "Overture/Gershwin Medley," begins as a typical interpretation of recognizable tunes, including "Slap That Bass," "I've Got Rhythm" and "Strike Up the Band." But as the track progresses, Austin throws in syncopated verses accompanied by subtle minor chords from the brass and rhythm sections, giving the track a lazy-yet-suspenseful, sensual vibe. Then, the arrangement twists and turns, throwing in an unexpected and frantic loud bridge that combines scat singing and trumpet blasts before returning to its former lounge tempo.

Austin’s vocals are complemented by an appropriately brassy big band, whose sound is amplified and center-stage without overpowering or drowning out the harmonious arrangements. The instrumentation is edgy and innovative, while retaining the jazz sensibility of Gershwin's originals.