A star is reborn: World wide performance
Patti Austin is that rare vocalist who transcends styles and eras with a big voice and personality to match. Whether singing the R&B numbers that marked her early successes, chart-topping pop love songs like “Baby, Come to Me” or exhibiting her jazz chops that took home a Grammy Award in 2008 for Best Jazz Album, “Avant Gershwin,” she remains at the top of her game after more than a half century.
She celebrates the departure of 2011 by dedicating her hit song, “Soldier Boy,” to the troops returning home from Iraq, and welcomes 2012 with a New Year’s Eve concert at the Kennedy Center devoted to Duke Ellington’s music, a prelude to her upcoming album.
“Duke was a giant,” she said. “The music he and Gershwin wrote is just as fresh today as when it was composed. I’m thrilled to perform at the Kennedy Center with a six-piece band and the material we recorded with the same producer of our Gershwin album, Michael Abene.”
» Where: Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
» When: 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday
» Info: $75; 202-467-4600; kennedy-center.org
Following the show, guests are invited to the Grand Foyer Party featuring waltzing and swing dancing from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. and a big balloon count-down at midnight.
Austin’s distinctive timbre caresses the ear no matter that she is performing as a soloist or singing duets with such top stars as Johnny Mathis, George Benson and James Ingram. Her long relationship with Michael Jackson began with “The Wiz” when she was contracted to book 345 singers and handle all the paper work involved.
“That was before the PC,” she said, laughing. “Michael had very little to say. He just walked around with a paper and pen writing down anything that sounded remotely intelligent. The next time we met was for a project with Quincy Jones. The three of us were sitting in Quincy’s den when the phone rang and Quincy left the room. I’m not one to start conversations, so we both sat quietly. Then all of a sudden Michael began to talk and didn’t stop. We worked together quite a bit after that in the studio and live. His energy was over the moon. This was his renaissance period when he was like a fireball, almost nuclear.”
Austin credits Quincy Jones with stoking her career. Her epiphany came when she and her musician father attended the Newport Jazz Festival as a guest of Jones.
“I was just 13 and not a fan of Judy Garland,” she said. “I admired Ella, Dinah Washington and female black singers who simply walked on stage and sang beyond compare, so when Quincy told me I had to go out front to watch her, I wasn’t happy. At that time in her life, she was a sorry mess and didn’t have a lot of her voice left.
“But what I saw was amazing, one of the top three shows I’ve ever seen. Even without her voice, Judy was still a great actress. There was a screen on stage that she’d go behind to change her outfit and talk about the song she had just sung or the next one. In short, it was all about entertaining the audience. Afterwards, I went backstage with my father just as she was passing. She stopped, looked at me, took my face in her hands and kissed me.”
Austin has never stopped entertaining in her own inimitable style. Directly ahead in 2012 are concerts in Europe, South Africa, Australia and with the Boston Pops along the way. To facilitate her schedule and avoid traveling with an entourage, she has bands in Europe, Asia and on both U.S. coasts. Her upcoming Carnegie Hall concert honoring Ella’s Gershwin Songbook with Nelson Riddle arrangements is an event not to miss.
“Gershwin and Ellington composed music of their time that has endured and is relevant today,” she said. “Ellington left an incredibly intelligent body of work that is still rich at a time when music has been downsized. It’s an honor to be able to sing for another generation his powerful and timeless music that has never lost its gleam or glitter.”