Classic Music Review: That Secret Place by Patti Austin

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The life of the altrockchick is not simply a whirlwind of kick-ass rock, hard-ass punk, handcrafted whips, nipple clamps and leather harnesses. I have moods, people!

One of those moods is “softer,” a word I hate to apply to myself, so consider it a temporary fix and let me explain. It’s a loving, tender mood, but I wouldn’t call it a romantic mood, because the word “romance” has too many negative connotations for me. “Romance” makes me think of despicable clichés like roses on Valentine’s Day and ridiculous tantalizers like edible underwear. I’d rather call it my “slow burn mood,” because the fire is still there but I feel like simmering for a while with kisses and touch instead of expressing passion through the usual scalding heat. When I’m in that space, I like to listen to soft jazz, mellow soul music and slow tempo R&B, and my favorite records at those moments are Candy Dulfer’s Sax-A-Go Go, Sade’s Love Deluxe, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, maybe Getz/Gilberto if I want a Brazilian flavor, and Patti Austin’s That Secret Place.

Patti’s album is a tour de force, for she can sing anything from jazz to soul to R&B to gospel. The arrangements are uniformly superb, and combined with an excellent sense of track order, create the feeling that you’ve entered a cozy little jazz spot down a dimly lit alley where music is all that matters. Finally, That Secret Place has deep personal meaning for me because I first heard it when I was going through a difficult time and the desire to find a hideaway where I could be alone with someone who loved and cared for me was a desperate necessity. No one can ever tell me that music does not possess enormous healing power, for I have personally experienced that power, and it’s a much healthier approach to recovery than filling oneself with antidepressants and other pharmaceuticals. This healing aspect of music has gained credibility with some in the medical and academic communities, particularly in the treatment of brain-related conditions.

Now, I don’t want to give you the impression is that this album is strictly or even slightly therapeutic in terms of feel. That Secret Place moves, rocks, shakes, shimmers and dances, and is an absolute delight to listen to. It is emotionally honest, extremely moving and sometimes speaks of human pain and sadness. Even so, it doesn’t take me back to a dark place but showers me in light and happiness; the feel of the album is regenerative and the message is that we can face life’s troubles and move forward through an undying belief in the power of love. On a universal level, That Secret Place is the perfect record for recovering from the bullshit assaulting us every day of our lives in the news, in the commute, on the job. We all have the need for a little rehab after contact with modern existence, and in that sense, That Secret Place is a blessed gift.

The intensely romantic, whisper-in-your-ear “That’s Enough for Me” opens the album. Tasteful synth touches, cascading piano runs and a slow-burn groove never get in the way of Patti’s rich alto and her mastery of phrasing. It’s a song designed to gently warm soul and body, subtly seducing you to gradually let go of all of that tense, senseless, rat-race bullshit that’s coursing through your veins. It’s time to sit back, order a drink and let the music take you to another world.

You’re still warming up, so Patti’s going to take you a little bit further down the road to reconnection with “Ability to Swing.” The rhythm moves a step up-tempo, kicking into a finger-snapping rhythm when Patti enters with the vocal. At the first bridge, the song lives up to its name and really starts to swing, and the lyrics take on a bit more pizazz:

Everybody talkin’, talkin’ pretty loud
Everybody lookin’ to stand out from the crowd
Gonna break it to you, bucko, it isn’t worth a bean
If you ain’t in possession of the ability to swing

The band really gets flying as Patti shifts to scat. Sacrilege #1: I like Patti’s scat better than Ella’s. I know Ella’s style is lightning quick and quite impressive, but I love Patti’s smoothness.

Before we get too excited, Patti ratchets it down to sing the grand ballad, “Somebody Make Me Laugh.” When I was going through my down period, these David Broza lyrics meant everything to me, and Patti sang them in a way that captured my deepest emotions. Back then they made me cry; now they bring up only the deepest feelings of tenderness and love.

This life is full of full of little joys,
Things happen sometimes that are nice:
I kept the eye of the man at the corner,
Seen his head turn twice.
They say I’ve got a star in my sky,
Got the whole world at my feet,
But I may have things I’ve always wanted
But something’s still missing inside of me.

Somebody make me laugh,
Somebody make me cry.
Somebody tell me something my heart can’t deny,
Somebody make me feel the things I cannot feel alone,
Somebody take my heart home.

“Broken Dreams” takes us back to a soft jazz style, very soothing after the intensity of “Somebody Makes Me Laugh” despite the story of separation described in the lyrics.

Patti then kicks some butt with her funk version of “Rock Steady,” first popularized by Aretha Franklin. Sacrilege #2: I prefer Patti’s version to Aretha’s. It’s really a matter of preferring the richer sound of an alto voice, and Patti really knocks this one out of the park.

But I absolutely adore the slick and snappy “Captivated.” This is where the foreplay starts to get serious, as Patti delivers big time while expressing the contradictory feelings you have when you’re attracted to someone who’s not ready to get serious. The groove here is a syncopated sway with strong reggae-like punctuation, and Patti stays in perfect sync with that groove throughout. She follows that with the sweet, soulful and tender “Hurry Home,” a song that always makes me want to smother my lover in kisses and hold him or her close so they’ll never go away. Love the sax, guitar and piano on this track: so subtle, so strong.

The other song that carries deep meaning for me is the title track, “That Secret Place.” First is the magical opening passage, where Patti scats the melody with warmth and feeling, but without overpowering the groove. After a short lick of trumpet (I read on AllMusic.com that Patti intended this song as homage to Miles Davis), we arrive at the chorus, with its simple message of longed-for relief from the tensions of the present and desire for closeness: “We ought to go away/To that secret place.” That was my obsessive mantra during that rough patch: to get to that secret place where no one in the world knew where I was, except the one person I loved, the one person who accepted me for who I was.

Patti then returns to scat, because really, it’s all about the feeling, not the story. The scat syllables express that childlike longing for a secret place far better than any story line could. In fact, when she uses a verse to describe a tropical paradise, the only line I really care about is “No one there but you and I.” The place where I needed to go wasn’t physical, it was spiritual. Fortunately, there’s not a single additional word of exposition; the rest of the song is about feel, groove and sweet, sweet music. I could wrap myself in this song and be happy for the rest of my life.

“Reach” comes next, bringing you back to the present with a snappy, beat-driven number with a strong gospel feel. Patti’s growls on this song are to die for, especially when combined with her ability to soar over the scales. The gospel here is the realization of love, making it a perfect pairing with “That Secret Place.” The album ends with pure beauty in the piano ballad, “Stars in Your Eyes,” featuring a very spare arrangement similar to Roberta Flack’s quieter numbers. The song speaks of the difficulties of love’s journey, through the joys, the risks, the fear, the pain . . . and learning to accept that there will be “mistakes,” but you have to keep taking the risks.

Just a touch or knowing glance
We had learned to trust each other
In the midst of our romance
We held on so tight

If I had my chance again
Maybe I would see the danger
Guess I’d make the same mistakes
It’s hard to be young and wise
When all you see are stars in your eyes.

That Secret Place is a record that I will forever cherish, for it evokes the truest part of myself. I can listen to it when I feel happy, when I feel sad, or when I’m in the mood for that tender kind of love that reaffirms and nourishes the soul.

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