- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

When four baby-faced backup singers preceded Patti Austin onstage Friday at the Birchmere, some in the mostly middle-aged crowd feared the worst.

“That’s always a sign that the voice has gone,” one concertgoer whispered.

Maybe not.

Miss Austin has never been better.

She served notice early on that she wouldn’t be performing her string of hit duets with James Ingram, such as Michel Legrand’s Oscar-nominated “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” and “Baby Come to Me,” or “Razzamatazz” from Quincy Jones’ Grammy-winning album “The Dude.” Rather than pop, the evening’s focus was on jazz — specifically Ella Fitzgerald, America’s First Lady of Song.

No one seemed to mind. The real tragedy is that Miss Austin, the goddaughter of music legends the late Dinah Washington and the aforementioned Mr. Jones, has kept her jazz chops under wraps for most of her thirtysomething years in the spotlight.

Miss Austin’s choice of material was culled from 2003’s Grammy-nominated “For Ella” LP. Her familiar honey-coated, clear-as-a-bell voice intact, Miss Austin came out swinging with Charlie Parker’s jaunty “Koko” and continued to sail with “Mr. BeBop” (set to the music of Miss Fitzgerald’s “Mr. Paganini”) and Fats Waller’s classic “Honeysuckle Rose.”

By the fourth number, Miss Fitzgerald’s 1938 signature “A Tisket-a-Tasket” (complete with great muted horn work from saxophonist Dylan Henry and trumpeter RJ Avallone), Miss Austin — fitting Miss Fitzgerald’s trademark scat to a tee — had the audience spellbound. The adulation continued as she and magnificent pianist Danrella Schachter took the crowd to church with a gospel-flavored rendering of “Miss Otis Regrets,” Cole Porter’s tragic tale of love gone bad. Only the collection plate was missing.

Less effective, though, was a miniversion of War’s “Slipping Into Darkness” — primarily because of the overperkiness of Miss Austin’s backup singers, who, at this stage of their careers, seem better suited for a Carnival Cruise Lines revue than the challenge of bebop and vocalese.

Mr. Jones’ adaptation of “Birdland,” Joe Zawinul’s glorious fusion anthem from 1989’s Grammy-winning “Back on the Block” showcased Miss Austin and company in a fine finale.

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