Emmylou Harris: For No One

So after writing up the Paul McCartney – Loma Mar Quartet connection the other day, there he was on the tube last night, as part of the WGBH “Beatle Month” of programming.  Last night was a re-airing of the 2010 Gershwin Prize Concert for McCartney, held at the East Room of the White House in 2010 – with an additional concert at the famed (and tiny) Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, which administers the prize on behalf of the Gershwin estate.  (That’s where the footage of “Yesterday” was shot.)

A dizzying (and somewhat baffling) array of special guests sang and played Macca tunes before the honoree and the First Family, including Stevie Wonder, the Jonas Brothers, Faith Hill, Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl (an uncanny ability to channel McCartney’s high tenor in “Band on the Run”), and even pianist Lang Lang.

But my hands-down favorite interpretation of the night came from Emmylou Harris, who managed to turn “For No One” into a convincing Appalachian ballad:

Avant Gershwin

WASHINGTON – The reason I’m posting from downtown D.C. this morning has to do with the lady on the left — jazz vocalist Patti Austin, who helped to usher in the New Year with a dynamic all-Gershwin concert at the Kennedy Center last night. Patti’s two-set show, backed by a crackerjack octet (piano, guitar, bass, drums, sax, trumpet, ‘bone) was part of Toast of the Nation, NPR’s annual all-night New Year’s Eve jazz party. Yr Hmble Srvnt was on hand to produce the show for the net.

In my previous life coordinating this production was Tension City; the logistics of pulling off six live shows through multiple timezones is only dizzying when it’s not downright frightening. By comparison, spending a day backstage at the KenCen with old friends and terrific musiciains, old pros all, was pure pleasure.

That’s not to say there weren’t the usual hiccups and anxieties that arise anytime you’re producing live radio. To be sure, there were. But it was all redeemed by the music on stage: some really interesting arrangements of Gershwin standards, mostly drawn from Austin’s recent CD called Avant-Gershwin. The disc has been getting a lot of buzz — a pair of Grammy nominations, and USA Today critic Elyse Gardner even had it down as her Top Album of the Year, edging out Junior Senior and Springsteen’s Magic. — and if we didn’t get the memo, Patti was there to remind us. (As a veteran showbiz producer, she’s not the type to let these PR moments pass…..)

But the praise is hard-won and well-deserved. Her voice was in top form, and the arrangements by Michael Abene are clever, quirky, and swing. You can check out a couple of the CD cuts (recorded with the excellent WDR Big Band) here. The Kennedy Center show was the first time that Austin has taken the show on the road with a pared-down octet, and the results were pretty impressive, particularly for the second set that we broadcast live to the nation. Though I have to say that my lasting memory was a haunting version of But Not For Me, featuring just Patti and pianist Mike Ricchiutti.

But don’t take my word for it: check out the whole concert on the new NPR Music site.

Update 1/2/2008: Critic Mike Joyce talks about Patti’s “Star Jones Moment” in his review of the concert in today’s Washpost. You can read the review here.