New Gershwin for a New Year, From Patti Austin

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

There was a Star Jones moment when singer Patti Austin stepped onstage at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Monday night to ring in the new year with an all-Gershwin program. The eight-time Grammy-nominated singer has shed well over 100 pounds since undergoing gastric bypass surgery three years ago. Sheathed in a snug gown, she looked glamorous and sounded even better, accompanied by a horn-powered octet and inspired by a series of fresh interpretations of Gershwin tunes arranged by Michael Abene.

Though Abene wasn't on hand for the performance, Austin frequently pointed out his contributions to her latest CD, "Avant Gershwin," and rightly so, since the big band charts he devised for that live recording are laced with numerous harmonic and rhythmic twists. On Monday night, those arrangements were pared for a smaller ensemble, but they were consistently appealing nonetheless, not to mention vocally challenging.

Fortunately, Austin has power and range to spare, so much so that she often sounded as if she were another member of the horn section, producing trumpeting flourishes and deep, resonating tones, beginning with a flag-waving medley of Gershwin "rhythm" songs. In sharp contrast, a subdued coupling of "Love Walked In" and "Love Is Sweeping the Country" proved dreamy and alluring.

Austin occasionally saluted the Gershwins with songs she recorded earlier in her career, including a funk-accented version of "They Can't Take That Away From Me." But she capped the opening set with Abene's brash, Ella Fitzgerald-evoking take on "Lady Be Good." A "barnburner," Austin promised, and it was.

-- Mike Joyce

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