by Guytano Parks

AUSTIN-PattyThe evening shimmered, both musically and visually as the Grammy Award-winning singer Patti Austin took to the Severance Hall Stage in The Music of Ella and Ellington with The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by James Feddeck on Saturday, May 18. Miss Austin made an elegant entrance in a bejeweled silver grey gown which fit right in with Severance Hall’s luxuriously opulent decor. “Look at that ceiling, did you ever see anything quite as beautiful?… my house would look so great with that ceiling,” she said with an upward gaze. Her stage manner and banter immediately endeared her to the audience. And her voice was in particularly fine form, distinctively rich and colorful, ranging from the seductive and smoky to the vibrantly clear.

Feddeck and the orchestra opened the concert with a vigorous and exciting account of Bernstein’s Overture to West Side Story. Biting brass and driving rhythms were energized by the percussion section while lush strings and colorful woodwinds imparted character and atmosphere to one of musical theatre’s most beloved scores.

Too Close for Comfort by Jerry Bock began the Ella portion of the program, followed by a spectacular Mr. Paganini by Sam Coslow. Miss Austin, quite the raconteur, told stories of Ella Fitzgerald’s experiences as a fledgling singer on amateur night at New York’s Apollo Theatre among others. This talent for reminiscing and storytelling may be the key as to why she has the ability to project and express the meaning of the lyrics with such conviction. She doesn’t merely dazzle with her virtuosity, everything is at the service of the lyric. And she can scat with the best of them, too! You’d be hard pressed to find a more poignantly personal rendition of Gershwin’s OurLove Is Here to Stay, as Miss Austin luxuriated in this arrangement, effectively taken down a notch in tempo which further enabled the storytelling.

Patti Austin brought along her own pianist, bassist and drummer who were joined by a few of Cleveland’s local jazz players for this concert with The Cleveland Orchestra. The wonderful solos by some of these musicians garnered applause during the performance, something nonexistent in concerts by TCO. But this was, after all, a Celebrity Series concert with a more relaxed atmosphere allowing for a non-eschewing of spontaneous reaction to the music attitude. The orchestra players assisted in the vocal department in a funky arrangement of A Tisket, A Tasket as they questioned the color of the basket, amusingly echoing Miss Austin. Who would have ever thought that this children’s nursery song would become one of Ella’s most popular hits and a successful jazz standard?

Cole Porter’s Miss Otis Regrets was another song which benefitted from a masterful arrangement, allowing the singer room to breathe, ponder and muse over the lyrics. Beginning with the solo piano accompaniment, it was rendered in a soulful, gospel style which swelled up as the strings and percussion joined in, then subsided as the piano and voice ended. This and the next song, the bawdy and brassy Ager-Yellen tune Hard-Hearted Hannah, were about “two crazy heifers, the first cases of mad cow disease,” as Patti Austin comically quipped.

Act Two began on a hushed, elegant note as the string sections played Gershwin’s Lullaby. All of the qualities for which Cleveland’s strings are praised were in evidence: a diaphanous sheen in the pianissimo sections, buoyancy and effervescence in the pizzicati and a penetrating tone in the melodic material, especially by violinist Peter Otto and cellist Richard Weiss. The piece rocked gently back and forth under Feddeck’s tender and supple lead.

An immediate contrast came as Miss Austin took to the stage again — this time in a bejeweled, berry-colored gown — to sing the first of the Ellington songs, the rollicking It Don’t Mean a Thing before speaking about Duke Ellington. The elegant and refined, respected and revered composer and pianist’s songs, which are firmly ensconced into The Great American Songbook, are widely recognized to be among the best of the best. Satin Doll was suave and sophisticated in its cool, laid back treatment. I Got It Bad(And That Ain’t Good) delighted with its seductive, intoxicating feel and featured an expressive saxaphone solo. A jaunty and fun arrangement of I Love You Madly also included a saxophone solo.

A retro-rock sounding version of Lucky So And So (think Spinning Wheel by Blood, Sweat and Tears, 1969) with its prominent brass parts added another interpretive style to this creative program, making it difficult for one to sit still. At this point, Patti Austin held an engaging scat chat, explaining the technique, its origins and development with Ella being its queen. Miss Austin explained how Dizzy Gillespie would play a phrase and Ella would sing it back — note, rhythm and pitch perfect. This led into the final number of the night, How High The Moon done as Patti described with, “me doing Ella doing Charlie Parker.”

Prolonged applause and a standing ovation brought Patti Austin back for several curtain calls. She graciously performed an encore, but not before telling another story. Years of being single and childless had become the source of much contemplation and depression for her, full of ups and downs and the usual baggage of mixed feelings. Gershwin’s The Man I Love with solo piano accompaniment summed it all up.

Published on May 21, 2013

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