Patti Austin made it clear that she didn’t feel constrained by the Celebrating Women in Jazz theme of the concert in the American Jazz Museum’s Jammin’ at the Gem series Saturday. After performing the opening number, she declared that “it’s about the music I like, and I don’t care if you like it.”
An audience of about 300 at the Gem Theater heard Austin re-create the sort of genteel soul and elegant pop that made her ravishing voice a familiar presence on radio airwaves in the 1970s and 1980s. She also dished dirt on her famous collaborators and shared colorful anecdotes about the entertainment industry. Born in New York in 1950, Austin had decades of material to discuss.
“I started in show business when I was 4, and I had my first TV show when I was 5,” she said.
She later contributed background vocals to classic albums by the likes of Billy Joel and sang a duet with Michael Jackson on his “Off the Wall” album. Austin’s lengthy introduction to a rendition of her 1982 chart-topper “Baby, Come to Me” touched on the vagaries of the music industry and her perception that her achievement has been marginalized.
“When you’re a black artist and you have a pop hit and you get old, suddenly it’s not a pop hit anymore. … You can call it smooth jazz, you can call it Quiet Storm, you can call it adult contemporary. It was a (expletive) pop hit.”
Austin admitted that she was under the weather. Her voice contained only a portion of the brightness exhibited on her 17 albums. While a reading of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” showcased her dusky lower register and the festive “Love Wins” included a playful scat that compensated for the lack of a horn section, an uncharacteristic rasp marred her famously pristine voice on selections including “Never Never Land.”
The heedless pounding of drummer Ross Pederson made further distinctions impossible. He often played as if he was supporting punk icon Patti Smith rather than the refined R&B artist. His work regularly overwhelmed Austin, pianist Mike Ricchiuti and bassist Richard Hammond.
The dilemmas caused by Pederson’s pummeling and Austin’s ailment were remedied by the appearance of two dozen members of the Kansas City Boys Choir and Kansas City Girls Choir under the direction of Ah’Lee Robinson for the final three selections. Their spirited presence elicited Austin’s most powerful vocals of the evening and provided an uplifting sense of grace and joy.
A Little Bit of Love; Smoke Gets in Your Eyes; Pick Yourself Up; Never Never Land; They Can’t Take That Away From Me; Stairway to Paradise; Funny Face; Baby, Come to Me; How Do You Keep the Music Playing?; Love Wins; This Little Light of Mine; Swing Down Chariot; Lean On Me