It takes an immense amount of courage to pay tribute to a legend, universally acknowledged as one of the greatest vocalists in contemporary music. And when we’re talking jazz and the singer is the late and much-loved Ella Fitzgerald, it takes a special kind of artist, one who has the instinct, the timing and the talent. Patti Austin has this…and so much more. A milestone in a career filled with accomplishment and achievement, For Ella (PBD-7503) – Patti’s superb testament to the first lady of song – is even more amazing in that it was recorded live. No studio tricks or gimmicks but rather in the tradition of Ella herself, a complete performance in front of a live audience. The tour-de-force thirteen-track album was recorded in June 2001 in Koln, Germany with the WDR Big Band and Orchestra (arranged and conducted by Patrick Williams) and the Gregg Field Rhythm Section at the Koln Philharmonic Hall. "It was the most fun and the most terror I’ve ever experienced in my whole career!” Patti laughs. "I love to challenge myself and I was ready to do that with this project. Then midway through learning the songs and rehearsing, I asked myself why I said ‘yes’ to doing this!”
Patti spent two months listening intently to Ella’s catalog and was instantly reminded of the singer’s sheer artistry: "Once I started preparing for the album, people would flow into my life that had worked with her and the theme that I heard constantly was that she was painfully shy. What I realized was that, once she hit that stage, she sang like her life depended on it. Her vocal licks were so finite, she had such incredible technique, such mastery…”
Faced with the daunting task of choosing from hundreds of recordings, Patti and producers Williams and Field (who had played with Fitzgerald, as had pianist Frank Chastenier) made separate lists of songs to consider: "When we had our ‘Ella’ day, we discovered all three of us had made many of the same choices. Then we tried songs to see what worked. The question was always, ‘do we do this tune Ella-style or Patti-style?’ We ended up doing both – it depended on the material. We’d listen to Ella’s version of the songs and then we’d see what fit me best.”
As an example, while Patti puts her own stamp on Cole Porter’s cinematic gem "Miss Otis Regrets,” she faithfully and precisely recreates Fitzgerald’s recordings of "You’ll Have To Swing It (Mr. Paganini)” and "How High The Moon,” producing two of the most incredible cuts on the album. Considering Ella’s own tour-de-force performances, the task was no mean feat; "Moon,” for example, features some of the most intense scatting Fitzgerald ever committed to record; with shifting tempos and a stunning climax, "Paganini” requires incredible stamina and vocal power. "I picked those songs because Ella gave such virtuoso performances on them. I literally spent three weeks learning, dissecting them note-for-note. I would go to bed at night singing them and I’d wake up next morning and the first thing I’d do was sing them over again. I guess the test came the first time I rehearsed with the band and the orchestra, many of whom had played with Ella before.”
Needless to say, the response was overwhelmingly positive and when Patti stepped in front of the live audience for the recording of the album, the reaction was equally astounding. The show ended with a fifteen-minute standing ovation. Recalling the show, Patti says, "European audiences have always had such a love affair with jazz – it’s really the American form of classical music. Before I went onstage, I prayed to my Dad, who was a jazz trombonist and to Ella. I have to say, Ella’s spirit was bouncing all over that place that night!”
In addition to such Fitzgerald chestnuts as her signature tune, "A Tisket A Tasket” and Fats Waller’s "Honeysuckle Rose,” For Ella features time-honored tunes like "But Not For Me,” "The Man I Love” and "Our Love Is Here To Stay” from 1959’s Ella Sings The Gershwin Songbook along with Duke Ellington’s classic "Satin Doll.” The standard "Too Close For Comfort” is particularly special for Patti, having been brought to public attention by the late Sammy Davis Jr., who was responsible for assisting Patti in launching her career when she was in her teens. There are two original tunes on For Ella: "Hearing Ella Sing,” co-written by arranger/conductor Williams (whose extensive credits include work with Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond and Billy Joel); and "Ellamental,” a song introduced to Patti by fellow singer-songwriter Brenda Russell.
The remarkable album, released on the Concord Records-distributed Playboy Jazz label, comes at a notable juncture in the Austin career: with a one-woman autobiographical show named after her 2001 Warner Brothers album On The Way To Love opening in early 2002, Patti’s longevity in the music industry is finally being acknowledged and recognized. A prolific recording artist whose most recent releases include In And Out Of Love (1998, Concord Jazz), Street Of Dreams (1999, Platinum Entertainment) and a seventeen-track Very Best of Patti Austin anthology (2001, Rhino), Patti’s artistry knows no bounds.
Given her early foundation – as the goddaughter of musical legends Quincy Jones and Dinah Washington – it’s no surprise that Patti has been able to explore almost every genre of music through a career that spans over three decades. The New York-born singer first hit the stage with Washington at the tender age of four, debuting at the world-famous Apollo Theater in Harlem and she vividly recalls seeing Ella and other legendary performers such as Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne at the famous venue.
A recording artist in her teens, Patti recorded for labels like Decca/Coral, RCA and United Artists and her hard-to-find recordings remain much revered by soul music collectors, particularly in Europe and Japan. After numerous television appearances, more solo recordings and a three-year international tour as a headlining club singer, Patti returned to New York and began applying her vocal skills to the lucrative studio world by doing background vocal sessions and jingles. "The first session I did was for James Brown’s hit, "It's A Man’s World,” and when I got a nice juicy check from that, I said, ‘Hey, let me do some more of this stuff!’”
It wasn’t long before Patti became known as the undisputed "queen” of the New York jingle and session scene. Her voice has been heard on literally hundreds of commercials, behind everyone from Paul Simon, Cat Stevens and Joe Cocker to Bette Midler, Roberta Flack, Luther Vandross and Diana Ross.
Inevitably, Patti’s musical talents emerged from the background to the foreground. After a short stint with Columbia Records, Harry Belafonte’s former musical director, Bill Eaton, was responsible for bringing Patti to CTI Records in 1975. She made a quartet of acclaimed albums for the company, including the milestone End Of A Rainbow, Havana Candy, Live At The Bottom Line and Body Language.
At the beginning of the ‘80s, Quincy Jones gave Patti exposure to a wider audience through her participation on his best-selling albums Stuff Like That! and the Grammy-winning classic, The Dude. In 1981, she signed with Jones’ Qwest label; her debut album for them, Every Home Should Have One, included the chart-topping "Baby Come To Me,” a duet with then-label mate James Ingram. The pair reprised their success in 1983 with the Oscar-nominated "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” which they performed at the Academy Awards. Patti would later perform another Oscar-, Golden Globe- and Grammy-nominated song, "The Girl Who Used To Be Me” (from the film Shirley Valentine) on worldwide television.
Patti’s initial association with Qwest resulted in the albums Patti Austin, Gettin' Away With Murder (featuring the Jam & Lewis-produced R&B smash "The Heat of Heat”) and the magnificent David Pack-produced The Real Me. Featuring a powerful collection of pop and jazz standards including "Cry Me A River,” "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and "Mood Indigo,” 1988’s The Real Me remains one of the most popular items in the Austin catalog. Focusing as it does on timeless standards, For Ella could be considered as close to a follow-up recording in its thematic approach as Patti has made since that album’s release.
In 1989, Patti signed with GRP Records, starting a four-year stint with the label with "Christmas Time Is Here” from Happy Anniversary Charlie Brown. Other top-selling recordings followed, including 1991’s Carry On, Love Is Gonna Getcha (featuring the across-the-board hit "Through The Test Of Time”), That Secret Place and Patti Austin Live (recorded at New York’s Bottom Line) which showcased her more-than-ample standup comedic skills and brilliant impersonations, in addition to capturing the kind of dynamic, live musical performance which has made Patti one of the most popular artists both at home and abroad.
In recent years, Patti has performed extensively throughout the Far East where she is immensely popular. In addition to her international concertizing, Patti has also devoted a lot of time to performing for AIDS-related organizations and also took part in the ‘93 and the ‘97 "Colors of Christmas” tours with longtime friends and colleagues Peabo Bryson, Roberta Flack, James Ingram and Jeffrey Osborne. Frequently seen on television, Patti’s more playful side has been given full vent with guest appearances on shows like Hangin' With Mr. Cooper, The Dr. Ruth Show, Joan Rivers, Arsenio Hall and most recently, she has appeared in a guest-starring role on the popular TV show For Your Love in 2000.
On the recording front, Patti’s 1998 Concord Jazz album In And Out Of Love spent almost two years on the contemporary jazz charts while 1999’s critically-acclaimed Street Of Dreams included Patti’s timeless renditions of such tunes as "Someone To Watch Over Me” and "I Only Have Eyes For You.” In 1999, Patti added her vocal magic to Quincy Jones’ From Q With Love, Vols. 1 & 2 album via the standout cut, "If This Time Is The Last Time” and in 2000, she recorded "On The Way To Love,” a superb Warner Brothers album produced by Paul Brown (known for his work with Al Jarreau, Boney James and others).
After doing a concert with the forty-plus strong WDR big band and orchestra in Germany in 2000, Patti was invited back in 2001 and the idea for recording her homage to Ella Fitzgerald was born. "One of the most wonderful aspects of the album for me are the arrangements that Patrick Williams created. It was a remarkable task: most of the material Ella recorded was arranged by Nelson Riddle. The question was, ‘how do you walk in and recreate those arrangements?’ Patrick provided that piece of the puzzle.”
Patti’s own vocal performances on For Ella easily include some of the finest work she’s ever done: she swings through "Hearing Ella Sing” with absolute joy while "Our Love Is Here To Stay” is warm and elegant; "Hard Hearted Hannah, the Vamp Of Savannah” is what Patti terms "a wicked woman’s song!” and is the perfect vehicle for her to express her natural penchant for hilarity and humor. "For me doing this project is about keeping the flame burning,” Patti reflects. "I’m so blessed to have been around when Ella’s music was thriving. Recording with a big band represents a mission for me because it’s a form that is so beautiful and so unexplored these days. There are members of my audience who may not be as familiar with Ella’s work: I’d like to think that I’m being a vocal historian in a way, having the material live on through this album. For those people who love Ella, I can only hope they enjoy what we did. It was done with complete love, paying homage to Ella’s sound, a sound that was truly kissed by God.”
With live performances of the material on For Ella already confirmed for 2002 and beyond, Patti Austin can look at her latest accomplishment with much justifiable pride – it is a remarkable achievement, a landmark in an incredible career, a further testament to Patti’s status as a member of that rare breed: a true artist whose creativity knows no limits.