Catherine Russell at Birdland – Modest Bravura

Birdland once again welcomed Catherine Russell and her band Tuesday night. The sold out crowd came to hear authentically presented music – as it was meant to be performed by its songwriters. This is not to say arrangements are old hat or that Russell doesn’t add her stamp, but rather that she’s steeped in respect for the era that reflects performance. The artist doesn’t just get it, she inhabits it.

“My Man’s an Undertaker…and he’s got a coffin just your size” (Leroy Kirklend/ Mamie Thomas) arrives with cocky attitude; hurry-up-and-wait phrasing. Is there another contemporary singer who could make this convincing? “I don’t know why more people aren’t doing this tune?” Russell quips as if to answer.   “I Cried for You” (Gus Arnheim/Abe Lyman/Arthur Freed) is muscular in its delivery, yet not over the top. Shoulders rise and fall. It’s a statement, not a plea.

Hoagy Carmichaels “Ev’ntide”, written for Louis Armstrong, perambulates. Vocal winds through like a long sigh. Conjuring overhead fans and mint juleps, it’s eeazee. During “After the Lights Go Down Low” (Leroy Lovett/Alan White), lyrics seem to loop out and back as if elastic. “I’ll be nee-ding you,” Russell’s eyes close, nose crinkles, “after the lights go down low.” The song is shadowy, pungent. “The Touch of Your Lips” (Ray Noble) emerges mellow. Russell extends consonants. Piano tiptoes. Guitar embroiders. Mmmm.

Photo by Ian Herman

Two selections by the artist’s eminent father, Luis Russell, include “Bocas de Toro” (with H. Leo Levy), a savory rumba about his homeland of Panama and “At the Swing Cats’ Ball” (with William Campbell), an infectious jitterbug – quick, tight, melodic, and happy. Mark McLean’s drums add hip rippling rhythm. Russell seems to prefer upbeat songs. This one stands out. She’s gleeful. Fresh air sweeps through the venue. Similar vibe comes with Joe “King” Oliver’s “Dr. Jazz”  thrum, thrum, thrum, thrum, a quick, secular blues.

“Take the Hands Off the Clock” (Myron “Tiny” Bradshaw) is a honky-tonk stroll: “If you want another drink/Just look up on the shelf/I know it’s good stuff/Cause I made it myself…Yeah! Whoo!” Guitar contributes hazy reverb. Keyboard submits to Sean Mason’s fast fingers. Russell dances. Watching her is half the fun. A jaunty “Jeepers Creepers” (Johnny Mercer/Harry Warren) retains appealing simplicity while lending its treatment to jazz. Tal Ronan’s hand playfully slides up and down bass strings that suddenly seem greased. Munisteri grins.

“I don’t usually do new songs; this is from the 1960s introduces “Unchain My Heart” (Robert L. Sharp/ Teddy Powell) popularized by Ray Charles. Drums create backbone acting as ballast. Guitar twirls notes. Mason rocks back and forth, side to side. Russell’s meticulous  enunciation bristles then emphatically lands.  

Count on Catherine Russell and her band for an evening that showcases the enduring entertainment value of period material.

Catherine Russell at Birdland
Matt Munisteri – MD; guitar
Sean Mason – piano, Tal Ronen – bass, Mark McLean – drums

315 West 44th Street

About Alix Cohen (1775 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten 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, TheaterLife, 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.