As we have often noted over the many years we've had the chance to speak with the ever-delightful Patti Austin - starting back in 1977 when we encountered each other on the island of Antigua and discussed her then-relatively new and now classic CTI album "End Of The Rainbow" - the lady is phenomenally talented yet has had to endure an industry 'curse.' Her ability to transcend musical categorization has not endeared her to the industry establishment which prefers its artists neatly packaged and easy to place into a radio or retail slot. Patti's ease at dipping in and out of different musical genres - from R&B and soul to jazz and pop - is more than admirable: it's a skill only a few artists have been able to master.
Dealing with vagaries of the biz has never deterred Ms. Patti. You can always count on her to deliver music of quality and in spite of a major hiccup - read on - she has once again done the trick with her latest album, "On The Way To Love." Filled with tunes that alternate from the smooth to the soulful, the record was produced by a man Patti tags "the emporer of smooth jazz." Paul Brown
(whose credits include all manner of work as an engineer, songwriter and producer) has most recently worked with Al Jarreau and Boney James and his production skills have given Patti one of the most musically consistent albums of her career…
Over to La Austin who explains the circumstances that led to the production of her latest record: "Originally, I returned to Qwest Records to make a big band album," she recalls. "I had worked with (Qwest founder) Quincy [Jones] doing guest appearances on his "From Q With Love" album in 1998. That rekindled the whole experience of working with him, especially since we were working with the exact same rhythm section we had for [the 1983 hit duet with James Ingram] "How Do You Keep The Music Playing?" It was like, 'oh my God! let's work together again…' That's when we started talking about a big band record…"
It took Patti a minute or two to finally sign with Qwest (with whom she had spent many creatively productive years during the '80s) and then… "I was all ready to make this big band album of standards and the folks at the label said, 'that's a bad idea. We don’t think we can market that.'! They said they wanted me to do 'something classy'. They mentioned Paul [Brown] and I didn't know he was producing the stuff I liked. I loved what he had been doing with [instrumentalist] Boney James but my question was 'what has he done with a vocalist?' I'd heard cuts from Al Jarreau's "Today, Tomorrow" album on the radio and I thought, 'whoever put Al in such a modern setting and in such good form was incredible. Then I found out it was Paul. He had worked with Luther [Vandross] for about ten years as an engineer and he had all the sensibilities needed to work with a vocalist. The idea was to come up with some great songs…"
Once they got going, "I had so much fun working with him…it was real joy. Although it took about eight months because of our schedules, this was my kind of project. Everything Paul played me had my name on it. He had done his homework and there's no doubt, he buries, immerses himself in your musical history. Plus he has a crew to work with and their motto is, 'whatever's missing, we’ll write it.' The funny thing was that so many of the songs on this record were like the story of my life at the time…"
For instance, Patti guffaws, "There's the 'shit' song! "Playin' Around" had real personal meaning for me. I was coming out of a relationship - one of those 'bad' ones! I was determined to curse on a record [someday] so the song was perfect. In retrospect, the intensity of the lyric meant that it had real personal meaning for me." Likewise, the title track - one of three songs Patti co-wrote - which was written during the same period. "I had been going through a hard time personally and the idea for the song was to write something that would reflect how I wanted to feel after I came through whatever I was dealing with at the time. I remember thinking 'let's make some money off this puppy!' referring to the relationship I was dealing with at the time. We finished the whole song in thirty minutes…the words just flowed. At the time, I didn't realize that so many of the songs on this record would have true meaning for me in my own life…"
For instance, "Girlfriend" - originally intended as a theme for a t.v. show - tells the story of two lifelong friends and how, even though their lives have taken different directions, the friendship remains intact: "That song reminds me of the time I lived in New York in a walk-up apartment with Lani Groves and Deniece Williams as my roommates! They were with [Stevie Wonder's] Wonderlove at the time. Boy, the times we had!"
Other highlights of the album include "Let Me Be Me" which Patti says "reminds me of the song "Love Me By Name" [from the 1979 "Live At The Bottom Line" LP] - it's very plaintive. The minute I heard "If You Really Need Me Now," I said 'we must have James Inrgam or Michael McDonald for that.' We got James to come in and do some vocals on that and Boney James played on it. "Southern Rain" is a mysterious, ethereal kind of song and as far as meaning goes, well, I think it's really about a conversation someone might have with themselves. And the title track, "On The Way To Love" is my anthem, a signature piece along the lines of "Through The Test of Time." Siedah Garrett wrote that for me…"
The whole album is a triumph for Patti and in the notes for the CD, she states: "I worked on it during a very challenging time in my life. Turning fifty in a youth culture is certainly challenge enough, but I also endured personal upheaval that tested the fiber of my being in many ways. Yet one thing remained constant. The music." And while she admits that "On The Way To Love" is "not what I had in mind originally, it turned out to be like a nice fresh coat of paint on me. It ended up mirroring everything I was living through..."
Ironically, by the time it was finished and ready for release, Qwest was no longer and Patti found herself automatically switched over to Warner Brothers. Hopefully, the label will give it the attention it so richly deserves but in the meantime, Patti is gearing up for a one-woman show that will kick off in early 2002 in Sacramento, California. "It's going to be all about all that I've been through. Lots of personal stuff. Being wild and wacky and yet a major mellow kind of person underneath. It’s going to be about being in show business all of my life, about living through the civil rights movement. Some wild stuff, some sad stuff….about being the younger woman, the older woman [now that I'm fifty] and the other woman. I've been all of them.,.truly, been there, done that! I'm in the process of writing it. So many people have said, 'why don't you write a book?' but I'd rather do a show that's deep and funky!"
Until the play opens, Patti will be working on putting together her own radio show and out touring on some dates with Dave Koz and others and on other shows by herself (check http://www.pollstar.com). She also will be recording a special tribute to Ella Fitzergerald in Germany, contributing a couple of songs to a Gershwin tribute and enjoying renewed interest in her illustrious recording career via a Rhino Records anthology due out this fall. For the many folks who have enjoyed Patti's work, her latest set is a must, a reaffirmation that - like fine wine - she truly just gets better with time!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.