Catherine Russell: Sunny Side of the Street

Catherine Russell’s latest concert for Jazz at Lincoln Center was apparently “thirty years in the making.” Both a celebration of composer/arranger/bandleader Sy Oliver and an appreciation of Russell’s mother, Carline Ray, for 70 years an innovative jazz singer and musician, the evening is clearly a labor of love. We hear numbers from Oliver’s tenure with the Jimmie Lunceford orchestra and selections rearranged for, and performed by his vocalist wife, Lillian Clark, first with The Sentimentalists and then for The Lillian Clark Trio which included Ray and young Catherine herself.

Though Russell has presented isolated selections from the original show, up to now, she hasn’t had the opportunity to offer a large number of the swing songs as originated by the group. Tonight, joined by Carolyn Leonhart and La Tanya Hall with pristine harmony, impeccable phrasing, and infectious pleasure, the artist realizes her dream.

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Mike Munisteri, Catherine Russell, Tal Ronen, Evan Arntzen

We begin with a musical rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Mandy” ebulliently swung by the terrific band in an arrangement by Jon-Erik Kelso. Kelso’s solos throughout support his reputation for sparkling clarity and invigorated swing. The entire room grins. A happy-go-lucky, crisply articulated “My Blue Heaven” (Walter Donaldson/ George A. Whiting) follows. “I used to sing the top part, now I’m singin’ the bottom,” Russell quips.

“Don’t Blame Me (for falling in love with you)” (Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields) evokes a USO dance from the forties. It’s slow enough so that awkward soldiers won’t step on their partner’s feet too much. The trio is complicit, not a musical thread dangles. It’s as if they’d been doing this together for years. “Say It Isn’t So” (Irving Berlin) delivers swaying, textured harmony hand in hand with John Allred’s polished, wah-wah trombone. Vocal solos are cottony; sincere.

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Mark Shane, Carolyn Leonhart, La Tanya Hall, Catherine Russell

Oliver’s arrangement of a medley from Oklahoma! bears his signature stamp. Familiar songs sound blithe and fresh as swing. Vocalists emerge and retreat back into the group with fluency, sometimes warmly acknowledging one another. Guitarist Matt Munisteri provides subtle underpinning.

A 1950 version of the 1927 “Ain’t She Sweet?” (Milton Ager/Jack Yellen) with Evan Arntzen’s here doodling saxophone is hip and happy. …Cast an eye in that direction/Dig that child from fore to aft…Arntzen is this evening’s discovery. Russell calls him an old man in a young body. The musician plays superb sax, clarinet and flute exhibiting a preternatural understanding of the period and stylistic savvy.

“Opus One” (Sy Oliver/ Sid Garris) is the epitome of harmonic vocal swing, playful and bubbly. “It’s The Talk of the Town” (Jerry Livingston/Al J. Neiburg/Marty Symes), on the other hand, is so shadowy, even consonants seem airbrushed. Vocals dip and rise like scallops. Munisteri again embroiders.

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Catherine Russell (behind: Mark McLean, Evan Arntzen, Jon-Erik Kelso

Russell also offers solos.  I Know a Little Bit About a Lotta Things/But “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” popularized by its author, Peggy Lee, is eeezzzeee. Lyric lines have fading tails so that each connects to the next without a gap. The song arrives unfussy, conversational. Louis Armstrong’s “Give Me a Kiss to Build a Dream On,” with lush, muted trombone, begins the mellow, lilting, slow dance we know, builds to a burlesque stroll, and ends emphatic.

“T’Aint What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)”written by Oliver with Trummy Young for Ella Fitzgerald is performed with call/response, vocal to horns, then vocal to vocal: the band speak/sings in unison. “I’ve been waitin’ to ask them to sing somethin’ for a long time. They weren’t overjoyed, but…” Russell wryly tells us. Vocal is brighter here, more open-throated. The performer taps her right foot, then steps side to side in her inimitable, refined, I-can’t-help-but-move-a-bit manner.

Oliver’s arrangement of “On the Sunny Side of The Street” (Jimmy McHugh/ Dorothy Fields) was a big hit for Tommy Dorsey. Jaunty and light with Kelso’s trumpet in tangy, rasp mode, the song leaves the room awash in high spirits.

The three vocalists should come together again. Their sound is catnip.

Also featuring: Mark Shane-piano, Tal Ronen-bass, Mark McLean-drums

April 15, 2016- Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room

Photos by Frank Stewart
Opening: The Band

About Alix Cohen (805 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.