It was on a gorgeous night last September at the Los Angeles County Arboretum that I first heard Patti Austin sing live.
A friend had invited my partner and me to the Pasadena Pops’ summer-season closer, and she was one of conductor Michael Feinstein’s guest vocalists. Although I had heard of Patti Austin before, I didn’t know a thing about her or her music. Well, on that lovely night, we learned one thing about Ms. Austin: Man, can she sing.
After she knocked our figurative socks off that night, we wanted to see more of Patti Austin, so we made a point to check out her show at the McCallum Theatre last Saturday night.
We expected a night of great vocals—and we certainly got just that. The 64-year-old R&B/pop/jazz singer was simply stunning as she took the too-sparse audience on a journey through the life of Ella Fitzgerald, backed by a tight three-piece band (piano, drums, upright bass).
What we didn’t expect was the hilarious, irreverent aspect of the show: Austin is a fantastic storyteller, and she kept the audience in stitches with her between-song banter about Fitzgerald’s life, the plight of being single, and the evils of Diana Krall.
She kicked off the show with “Too Close for Comfort,” immediately showing off her scat-singing skills. After adjusting the position of a stool with two large mugs atop it (and musing out loud: “Does Barbra Streisand have to go through this crap?”), and telling the story of how she finally won her first Grammy after eight previous nominations in the Best Jazz Vocal Album for Avant Gershwin (because “that bitch from Canada, Diana Krall, finally got out of my way”), she began her tribute to Fitzgerald with “Honeysuckle Rose.”
Austin—wearing an oversized, shining silver blouse, with grey pants and heels—would tell an anecdote from Ella Fitzgerald’s life, and then sing a Fitzgerald song that corresponded to that period of Ella’s life. The most amusing moment came after Austin sang “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” and explained how Fitzgerald finally started to embrace the Great American Songbook with that song. Austin said all great artists eventually sing the Great American Songbook to cement their legacies—and wondered out loud what would happen when Snoop Dogg finally did so. Austin then rapped several lines of “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” earning an ovation from the audience. She transitioned back to Fitzgerald by stating: “Speaking of drugs, Ella never did them,” before speculating Fitzgerald may have had a contact high when she wrote “A-tisket, A-tasket.” Of course, Austin then knocked the song out of the park.
Austin said she’d be returning to Cologne, Germany, next month to again record with the WDR Big Band; this time, the music of Cole Porter will be the focus. She’s made a number of albums with the WDR Big Band, including 2002’s For Ella, the aforementioned Grammy-winning Avant Gershwin, and a yet-to-be-released Ellington collection. “They play their asses off, and their government pays for it,” she said of her German collaborators. Austin then hoped out loud that Elvis Costello, Diana Krall’s husband, would perhaps clear the way for another Grammy award by “jacking her (Krall) up with another set of twins.”
“Miss Otis Regrets” (my favorite song of the night) and “Hard Hearted Hannah” led Austin to discuss Fitzgerald’s constant problems with the romantic interests in her life. After a couple more songs, Austin “concluded” the concert with “How High the Moon,” featuring Austin’s exact replication of Fitzgerald’s singing/scatting to the Charlie Parker song.
Of course, this wasn’t the real conclusion; after walking off the stage and then returning for the encore, Austin joked about the “obligatory fake ending.” She then sent the delighted and amused audience off with a gorgeous version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”—a perfect way to kick off the holiday season in the Coachella Valley, thanks to one of the most amazing under-the-radar singers working today.