A new Patti Austin takes on Gershwin 

Grammy Award-winning singer Patti Austin gets a kick out of it when people refer to her as a "comeback artist."

"It’s funny because I’ve never really gone away," Austin says during a recent telephone interview from her home in Studio City. "I mean, you have to be completely away from music and then return to it in order to call it a comeback. I’ve actually been working now more than I have in a very long time."

Austin, whose music has crossed pop, soul and jazz, says that since "60 Minutes II" did a feature on her a few years ago, her career has soared to "a whole other level."

"My audience changed," says Austin, who has been traveling throughout the country and world performing songsby her idol, Ella Fitzgerald. "They became a bit older and more sophisticated," she adds. "And they love me singing jazz."

The daughter of jazz trombonist Gordon Austin and goddaughter of Quincy Jones and Dinah Washington, Austin already has received acclaim for her new album, "Avant Gershwin," which is in stores this week. It follows her 2002 Grammy-nominated disc, "For Ella," and reprises her work with the WDR Big Band.

While many of her colleagues have done similar compilations from the Great American Songbook, Austin says she wanted to offer audiences "new and adventurous arrangements" of the Gershwin classics.

"You can judge a brilliant piece of music by how you can bend and stretch it," she says. "I always believed George Gershwin to be avant-garde, so I wanted to challenge myself and rework everything melodically and lyrically. I also didn’t want people to listen to something they might have heard before and just give it a big yawn."

On "Avant Gershwin," Austin collaborated with arranger Michael Abene (Lionel Hampton, Buddy Rich and B.B. King). The recording includes a "Porgy and Bess" medley, "Swanee," "I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise," "Who Cares" and "Funny Face."

Austin, who is touring to support the album, says she hopes to connect with young people at bookstores and universities that have a diverse music curriculum.

"I’d ultimately like to hold some master classes on Gershwin," says Austin, who has an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. "A lot of people think that I was strictly reared on R&B since hearing songs like ‘Baby Come to Me.’ But this is really the music I grew up on. So it’s not as if I’m making any drastic changes to do this."

She has made one major change in her life — she recently underwent gastric bypass surgery. "It wasn’t a cosmetic thing," Austin says. "I did it to save my life. I suffered from diabetes and other health issues. I weighed 268 pounds. I’m now 140 pounds. I went from a size 26-28 to a size 6-8. It took a doctor to help me realize that over the years I had made terrible choices that impacted my health. I had to change."

Austin has become a nutrition advocate and vows to help others maintain a healthy lifestyle.

"I love the new me," says Austin, a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association’s "Power to End Stroke" campaign. "I have a totally new lease on life. I’m singing an entirely different tune these days."

Contact Lana K. Wilson-Combs at www.N2Entertainment.net.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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