If you’re a fan of 1920s-1950s jazz, blues, R&B, or swing, and unfamiliar with Catherine Russell, you’re missing not only real time embodiment of historical music genres, but immense listening pleasure. The artist’s father Luis Russell was arranger for Louis Armstrong; mother Carlene Ray played with Sweethearts of Rhythm and Sy Oliver. Russell has made her own way from gospel through rock n’roll back to well fertilized roots building a career of great prowess.
Watching the performer adds more than the usual added dimension. Russell never stops vibrating. From her core shimmy/bounce to actual dance, from a punctuating right arm and hand expressively opening and closing to consummate stage ease and elucidating patter, she’s an infectious delight.
Tonight the artist celebrates her 8th CD release, “Send For Me.” (Russell didn’t start recording until almost 50.) The title song by Ollie Jones sashays in with umph on the downbeat. MD Mike Munisteri’s guitar seems to swing its hips. John Alred’s trombone slides with mellow fluency. The vocalist’s clarity of tone never frays. Despite impressive control, we sense no tension. “Swing Cats Ball” (Luis Russell/Louis Jordan) follows with brass sass. Russell pats her hip in time. We bob in our seats.
“East of the Sun” (Brooks Bowman) floats on muted trombone and tender guitar. “This song calms my nerves,” she tells us.” For “Make It Last” (Bill Paxton/ Dick Haymes), terrific, young Summer Camargo unfurls ribbons of trumpet accompaniment. Russell’s nuanced vocal arrives pearly, though not insubstantial.
Danny Barker’s insinuating, honky-tonk “It’s Right Here For Ya” –If you don’t get it, ain’t no fault of mine is an acted story-song with New Orleans lag. Russell inhabits the lyric character. Inflection is right on. Despite innate class, she can present street attitude with credibility. Mamie Smith, Lulu Barker, Billie Holiday, Dakota Staton, and Ruth Brown are respectfully acknowledged. The performer’s ability to shift between soul, sizzle, shout, barrel house, ballad and swing – before it was adjusted to White audiences – makes her shows heady and of a piece.
Dinah Washington’s “Million Dollar Smile” spotlights open-throated delivery. Evan Arntzen’s tenor sax contributes stylish round-edge sonority. During Norman Mapp’s “In the Night”: I’ve been waiting oh so patiently/For my man to come home to me…, Russell leans candidly forward, then back, shoulders caved by the blues. “I’ve been there, you’ve been there. Exes give so much fuel to sing these painful songs,” she comments raising an eyebrow. Symbiotic brass leads “Teardrops From My Eyes” (Ray Charles) which pours out like molasses. Sentiment is rueful, not self-pitying.
Catherine Russell is refined and no-nonsense, yet unpretentious; stage authority is like cream rising to the top, vibrancy intrinsic, truth to origins ever present. The vocalist brings dignity to her art but also fun. She makes classics fresh. Arrangements and musicianship are top notch.
The CD drops in April. Treat yourself.
Photos courtesy of the artist
Catherine Russell- Album Release Celebration: Send For Me
Matt Munisteri- MD/guitar
Tal Ronan- bass
Mark Mclean- drums
Evan Arntzen- reeds
Birdland Jazz Club
315 West 44th Street