A staple of pop, R&B and jazz over the past thirty years, this impossibly versatile singer's 16 album career during that time rolls like a fascinating journey through those genres while also drawing wisdom and inspiration on occasion from The Great American Songbook. Avant Gershwin, Patti Austin's shimmering hour-plus tour de force through both familiar and obscure -- but always intriguing -- selections from the catalog of George & Ira Gershwin, is, for the record, not the first time she's dazzled with their songs. Her 1998 masterpiece The Real Me included "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me." And her 2002 tribute album For Ella included "Love Is Here to Stay," "But Not for Me" and "The Man I Love." Recorded live before an audience at the Kölner Philharmonic in Köln, and Westfalenpark Dortmund, Germany over two evenings in 2006, Avant Gershwin is in many ways an extension of the Fitzgerald tribute; both find her performing with the vibrant, brassy and swinging backing of the WDR Big Band. Its centerpieces are the "Overture/Gershwin Medley" -- a twelve-minute, moodswinging romp through the big rhythm songs, "Clap Yo' Hands," "Fascinating Rhythm" and "I Got Rhythm" -- and the dramatic 17-minute "Porgy and Bess Medley," which casts Austin as the consummate musical theater performer. The latter begins with a gentle orchestral overture and a tender read of "A Woman Is a Sometime Thing" and a lush twist on the familiar "Summertime" before shifting into full swing mode on "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York" and back to port for the start of "It Ain't Necessarily So" ahead of a theatrical finish. Beyond right on the money arrangements and Austin's always colorful phrasing, perhaps the most inspired element of the project is her impeccable song choice. Rather than settle for the songs everyone's heard ad nauseum, with the exception of "Swanee," she puts her own stamp on the lovelorn "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," the witty and delightful "Who Cares"and "Funny Face," and the heartbreaking "Love Walked In/Love Is Sweeping the Country." "Lady Be Good" provides a rousing, bold and brassy finish, with Austin doing the kind of sizzlin' scat that would do her idol proud. Who could ask for anything more? This CD was nominated for a Grammy award in 2007 for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
AllMusic Review by Jonathan Widran