The last person Patti Austin wanted to see was Judy Garland.
It was the early '60s, and the singer-songwriter, a precocious 13-year-old at the time, was at the Newport Jazz Festival with her parents and godfather, the illustrious Quincy Jones. The bandleader-producer urged the girl to check out Garland's set. Reluctantly, she did, and the aspiring young artist was forever changed.
"Her voice sounded like it had been dragged behind a truck for 20 miles on a rope," Austin says of the legendary Garland. "But her acting so transcended her voice. ... She ripped my heart out. I wanted to interpret a lyric like that, to present who I was at the moment through the lyric."
Later in the decade, at age 18, Austin established her recording career, which in the past 38 years has produced more than 20 hit singles, including 1982's No. 1 smash "Baby, Come to Me," a duet with James Ingram. But in all the years of traversing pop, jazz and R&B;, Austin, 56, says she has never forgotten that Garland experience.
And now on her latest release - Avant Gershwin, in stores this week - she has come full circle musically. The album, ablaze with stellar horns from the WDR Big Band, was recorded live in Germany last year. "It's a culmination of where I've come from," says Austin, who last week was performing in Hawaii. "This is the kind of project that Judy used to do, these theatrical live performances. I felt it was time for me to do that. Nobody else is doing these types of records anymore."
The idea isn't far removed from the tired standards-album trend that several baby-boomer acts have recently exploited. Some did it well: Natalie Cole and Gladys Knight come to mind. Others needed to heed Dionne Warwick's advice and "walk on by" the American Songbook. Hello, Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow.
But Austin isn't simply crooning the tunes of George and Ira Gershwin, shadowed by thick, syrupy strings. Backed with blaring, spirited arrangements courtesy of Michael Abene, Austin's bell-clear vocals zip through and soar over dramatic treatments of "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" and "Lady Be Good." On the latter number, Austin evokes jazz titan Ella Fitzgerald, to whom the native New Yorker paid a glorious tribute on her last album, 2002's Grammy-nominated For Ella.
"I was there when Ella was scatting. It's part of who I am," says Austin, who's based in Studio City, Calif. "When I sing these songs, it comes from the inside. I grew up at the helm of the innovators. But I'm an imitator. I don't know what you do after Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne."
But Austin manages to infuse the celebrated songs with an electric vitality, something she feels she could not have done 30 years ago. Just living - surviving personal and professional struggles through the years - has enhanced her artistry.
"It's a crockpot experience," Austin quips. "It's got to simmer before you can bring that something extra to your art."
The past four years or so were particularly trying for the pop-soul vet. Austin survived the slow death of her mother, to whom the singer was close. Watching her suffer a series of strokes pushed Austin to get serious about her own health. Asthmatic and diabetic, the performer, who at 5-foot-2 weighed 268 pounds, underwent a gastric bypass in 2004. Austin has since lost 145 pounds, and she showcases her new figure in the album art for Avant Gershwin, looking glamorous in a black fishtail gown with long matching satin gloves.
"This is the best I've ever felt," Austin says. "You don't know what's going to happen to you when you're in your 50s and menopausal. It's like being an adolescent but with a brain. But to be renewed and healthy at this point in my life, it's fantastic."
And belting the tunes of Gershwin onstage in new, fitted designer gowns is another plus.
Austin says, "Hey, to do this at 56 with a new booty is great."
To hear clips from Austin's new album, go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost.