Grammy and Oscar-winning songwriter and vocalist Patti Austin returned to team up with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for a spectacular performance of jazz classics, paying homage to the brilliance of native Washingtonian Duke Ellington and “The First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald last night at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Led by Principal Pops Conductor Jack Everly, the Orchestra with a full complement of string, horn and woodwind players, alongside a pianist, bassist and drummer, dressed in decorous white and black joined Austin for an evening of timeless tunes associated with jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and big band leader and composer Duke Ellington.
The Orchestra warmed up the crowd with familiar big band instrumentals and overtures as Austin sauntered on stage in a dazzling grey V-neck sequin top, austere leggings and stunning stilettos, devoting much of the first half of her program to tunes from the repertoire of her “favorite girl singer ever.” (Her description of Ella as “the Britney Spears of her day” and “the Katy Perry of her time”.)
Austin opened with Ellington’s jazz standards “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)”. Then, shifting gears to her fave, Austin unleashed a spirited “Too Close for Comfort,”, followed by a sultry “Azure”. Between numbers, Austin amusingly admonished various tardy members of the audience and told stories about Fitzgerald and provided some interesting background on the tunes.
Thoroughly witty, charming and hearty, in addition to being a skillful, nuanced vocalist, Austin was an engaging and entertaining raconteur, often peppering her commentary with an infectious laugh. While, introducing one of Fitzgerald’s biggest hits and, perhaps, her silliest song, “A-Tisket A-Tasket”, she explained how Ella would drape a cloth over herself on her band bus to avoid her musicians’ marijuana smoke. “But,” Austin added “she must have been on a contact high when she wrote this.”
With passion and precision that Ella Fitzgerald would embrace, Austin put her own signature stamp on many of the songs associated with the late jazz great, painstakingly re-creating Fitzgerald’s indelible scat runs on “How High the Moon.”
Austin wrapped up the first half of the program with “two songs about crazy ladies,” Cole Porter’s well-known “Miss Otis Regrets” and “Hard-Hearted Hannah,” which feature more deft scat singing. Austin does a credible impression of her favorite idol, adding a softer, delicate tone that belies her own R&B roots.
Following the intermission and an orchestral performance of comprehensive string compositions, Austin returned — now clad in a long hunter green dress — to continue her tribute to Fitzgerald and Ellington, whose style, sophistication and skillfulness she commented on several times.
She got things started with a bang with the Fitzgerald’s classic “Mr. Paganini” giving her a chance to once again display some impressive vocal flash with some Ella-esque scatting. Likewise, Austin gave an aching rendering to “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)”, and injected gospel overtones into “Lucky So and So.”
Austin concluded the show, much in the same fashion as she began, with pulsating energy and sass, elegance and spirit, “I think it’s time for me to slap that bass!” she announces, finger snapping and strutting along, after she brazenly asks a couple of spectators above whether they could see her Spanx. As the audience roars into laughter and cheers, Austin exuberantly belts “zoom, zoom, the world is in a mess,” galvanizing a beautiful symbiotic collaboration with the Orchestra while breathing fiery life into the unusual Gershwin fare.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, including one 20-minute intermission.
Tonight’s concert has been cancelled.
Patti Austin has one more performance tomorrow Sunday, February 22, 2015 at 3 PM at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall – 1212 Cathedral Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets for tomorrow’s 3 PM concert buy them online.
Patti Austin’s website.