The Melbourne International Jazz Festival opened with A Celebration of Ella & Louis featuring Patti Austin and James Morrison singing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Benjamin Northey conducted. Jazz deities Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong often worked together, having been brought together by Verve label producer Norman Granz (famed for fighting prejudice in the music industry). They recorded Duets in 1956 and made two more albums together in 1957 and 1958.
It’s a treat to hear jazz backed with a big sound, from an army of saxophones and a giant of a musician on double bass who enjoyed a solo moment. We heard pizzicato (plucking) from some of the big strings – a treatment not usually heard in jazz.
‘The First Lady of Song’ and ‘Satchmo’ were done proud by this show. Patti Austin, famously, has been appearing on stage since she was four and is in her natural habitat in concert. Morrison, of course, has been highly successful from his teenage years. He can hit notes of heights practically unheard with his trumpet and gave his own distinctive signature to Armstrong’s Up a Lazy River and Basin St Blues. He explained the meaning of the title of Duke Ellington’s Struttin with some Barbeque (a man’s pleasure in being seen out with a trophy woman; this was received with a collective resigned sigh from the audience), and performed what Austin called an ‘Esfahaned’ version, that is a Latin Jazz treatment, of Lullaby of Birdland.
Austin carries the title of Heir to Ella Fitzgerald’ – a heavy cloak she wears happily. We heard her sing many favourites – Hello Dolly, Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love, A Tisket a Tasket, Satin Doll, Mr Paganini, and a heartbreaking version of Cole Porter’s Miss Otis Regrets She’s Unable to Lunch Today (which was recorded by Ella in 1956.) Everyone knows Mack the Knife, sung by Ella at a concert in Berlin when she forgot some of the words so scatted her way through to the end, which was probably more interesting for the audience to hear than that long list of names in verse three. Austin’s scattin’ in How High the Moon was terrific.
Austin has incredible presence. She performs with all the emotion married to mastery you could wish for. She’s now 66 and her voice is in stunning form. And she’s funny, she joked about rap singers doing the Great American Song Book, giving us her fantasy performance of Snoop Dog rapping jazz classics, and also made a gag about losing out on a Grammy award to Canada’s Diana Krall: “I don’t go to Canada to take her awards so she shouldn’t come to the US to take mine.” Austin did receive a Grammy, for Best Jazz vocal award 2008, for her album Avant Gershwin and was nominated in 1982 and 1985 for best female R&B.
Only superlatives can describe this level of musicianship. I tried thinking up the most over the top way to describe Patti Austin’s oh-so- smooth delivery: ‘the tearing of raw silk crossed with the mating song of a unicorn!’
20th Melbourne International Jazz Festival
A CELEBRATION OF ELLA AND LOUIS
Featuring Patti Austin, James Morrison and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall
Date: 8pm, Friday 2 and Saturday 3 June 2017
Tickets: $50 – $125
Bookings: mso.com.au | melbournejazz.com | 03 9929 9600