BRING IT BACK / H. NELSON: Bring it Back. McHUGH-KOEHLER: I’m Shooting High. ELLINGTON-NEMO-MILLS: I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart. IDA COX: You Got to Swing and Sway. P. LOVE: Aged and Mellow. BROOKS: Darktown Strutters’ Ball. L. RUSSELL: Lucille. HUDGENS-BROOKS-LIVERMASH: You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb. WHITE-LOVETT: After the Lights Go Down Low. GLOVER-TOOMBS: I’m Sticking With You, Baby. WALLER-RAZAF: Strange as it Seems. ARLEN-KOEHLER: Public Melody Number One. HEYMAN-GREEN: I Cover the Waterfront / Catherine Russell, voc; Jon-Erik Kellso, tpt; John Alfred, tb; Dan Block, a-sax; Andy Farber, t-sax; Mark Lopeman, bar-sax; Mark Shane, pno; Matt Munisteri, gtr; Glenn Patscha, Hammond B3; Lee Hudson, bs; Mark McLean, dm/perc / Jazz Village JV 579001
I ran across this album by accident while perusing some old swing records on YouTube, had no idea who Catherine Russell was or what she sounded like, clicked on it and was immediately charmed and amazed. It turns out that Catherine was a late addition to the family of Luis Russell, the legendary Panamanian pianist-arranger-bandleader whose most famous composition was Call of the Freaks way back in 1929. As Jelly Roll Morton put it, Russell was never really a jazz musician because he didn’t improvise, but he was very highly respected because he was a superb pianist, a great sight reader, and an excellent arranger and bandleader. He was born in Panama in 1902 and died in 1963; Catherine was born in 1956, which makes her five years younger than yours truly.
In addition to this solo album, Russell has a long list of credits as a backup singer for Madonna, Steely Dan, David Bowie, Rosanne Cash, Lizz Wright, Cyndi Lauper, the Asbury Jukes and the Spin Doctors, most of these acts that I rarely if ever pay attention to. This seems to be the fifth of seven albums that she has made as principal vocalist to date; it was issued in 2014. And it’s a winner.
In an era when most female jazz singers sing soft and whispery, Catherine Russell does anything but. She sings out, she swings, and she has a very nice, distinctive voice. The opening selection, Bring it Back, is almost more of a blues than a swing piece, but it shows to great advantage Russell’s excellent instincts for singing in a jazzy manner. By this I mean that although she doesn’t improvise with the voice the way Billie, Ella, Anita and Carmen McRae did, she does sing with a great jazz feel. She knows how to pull back on the beat or push it forward, all of the little tension-and-release things that make a jazz singer sound good. There’s a bit of the blues shouter in her, too, relating her to singers of that genre, and for the most part this album focuses on old 1930s and early ‘50s songs associated with such legendary performers as Ida Cox (You Got to Swing and Sway), Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong.
In addition, her backup band knows how to work their way around every style she recreates here, headed up by famed retro trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and pianist Mark Shane. If you simply imagine that this album was recorded in mono on shellac records, you can easily imagine these being discs from the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s.
A whispery jazz singer she is not. Russell cuts loose with her voice in virtually every track, and she gives her talented sidemen plenty of solo space. In addition to Kellso and Shane, I was very impressed by trombonist John Alfred, tenor saxist Andy Farber (whose work channels Coleman Hawkins) and the overall arrangements, most of them by Farber but one (Ida Cox’s You Got to Swing and Sway) by Kellso. Some of Russell’s phrasing reminded me a little of Rosetta Tharpe, some like Ivie Anderson, but in the end her style, though eclectic, is entirely her own. Of course, the Sister Rosetta influence comes out strongest on the bluesy numbers like Bring it Back and Aged and Mellow, though on the latter she pulls back on the volume to give a more sultry (but by no means wussy) delivery.
Russell, with the help of arranger Farber, completely revamp the old (1917) Darktown Strutters’ Ball to give the song a Professor Longhair/Allen Toussaint kind of beat. She and the band also update her father’s composition Lucille, giving it a sort of mid-‘40s swing treatment in a chart that wouldn’t have embarrassed Woody Herman’s First Herd. There’s a wonderful passage around the 3:10 mark where her voice and the band click together in perfect synchronization, both pulling the beat in exactly the same direction. In You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb, the band does a wonderful job of recreating Fats Waller’s old arrangement—all that was missing were the trumpet and tenor sax solos. Guitarist Matt Munisteri does a nice Al Casey imitation. On I’m Sticking With You, Baby, Russell extends her style to encompass out-and-out R&B, and by golly, she can do this, too.
Moreover, Russell sings every song with great sincerity. You believe her when she sings these lyrics; she has the rare ability to make it sound as if these songs were part of a repertoire she’s been singing all her life. On Strange as it Seems, she’s accompanied only by Shane on piano; you can almost imagine her singing in a New York jazz club at one in the morning. Indeed, the juxtaposition of these different styles and her command of all of them is what makes this album so treasurable. She doesn’t just stay in one groove.
This is a wonderful album; had it been a new one, it would surely go to the top of my list for jazz vocal albums of the year.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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