Patti Austin | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Patti Austin's 2003 Grammy nomination raised a few eyebrows, not because she lacks skill or power as a vocalist but because it came in the jazz category--and Austin has had a successful career as a Motown-influenced pop singer, best known for the 1981 hit "Baby Come to Me." Perhaps the only unraised eyebrows belonged to those who'd already been shocked by the nominated album itself. On For Ella (Playboy), Austin's wholly satisfying tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, she honors the singer in the best way possible: on nearly a dozen of the tunes most associated with Fitzgerald, Austin convincingly conveys the legend's influence while for the most part avoiding imitation. (Anyone who's heard the originals can appreciate the wisdom of this approach, but also the difficulty: Fitzgerald's versions of such tunes as "Too Close for Comfort" or "But Not for Me" overshadow most others, making it tough for a female singer to find another way in.) And on the two songs where Austin does channel her idol, she redeems the exercise by going all the way, singing note-perfect reproductions of the Fitzgerald signatures "Mr. Paganini" and "How High the Moon"--right down to the originally improvised scat solos. As with Dianne Reeves, whose career has followed a similar progression, Austin's convincing embrace of jazz speaks not only to her own talent but also to the deep impact that jazz in general, and jazz singing in particular, continues to have on African-American pop. The Count Basie Orchestra will back Austin. She's preceded by sax wizard James Carter's tribute to swing guitarist Django Reinhardt, starring Gypsy guitarists Dorado and Samson Schmitt and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco. Thursday, June 12, 8 PM, Pavilion, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100.

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