Apr 12, 2010
You’ve heard Catherine Russell – you just might not realize you have. She’s paid the rent for years as an in-demand backup singer for rock artists like Steely Dan and David Bowie, and toured as part of the “American Beauty Project”, a rootsy tribute to the early 70’s music of the Grateful Dead.
On her own, she has released three exceptional albums, the latest of which, Inside this Heart of Mine, is being released this week. Backed by a talented trio of
Catherine uses her unerring sense of song selection and vocal prowess to move squarely onto the list of today’s finest female jazz singers. Think of the down-home sound of Cassandra Wilson mixed with the traditional delivery of Dianne Reeves, and you’ll get the drift. On the strength of this release, you’ll be hearing from her for some time to come.
Catherine is the daughter of two outstanding jazz musicians. Her father, Luis Russell, emigrated from Panama and made a name for himself in New Orleans, before ending up with Louis Armstrong as his musical director in the mid 1940’s. Her mother, Carline Ray, was a Juilliard graduate played with stalwarts like Mary Lou Williams and with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the seminal all-female band of the bop era.
I spoke with Catherine about her new album, her band, the joys of being a backing singer and how she chooses her material recently. Click here to listen to the Podcast, and enjoy musical selections including:
Catherine Russell – “You Were Made for Me” from Cat. An obscure Sam Cooke song becomes a realistic look at romance in Catherine’s hands. So good that my wife and I used it for our wedding.
Catherine Russell – “We the People” from Inside this Heart of Mine. A never before covered Fats Waller tune from an originally unreleased recording, the song comes across as a tongue-in-cheek populist manifesto from the Great Depression, which implores legislators to provide “syncopation” as the surest way to “please the people.” Maybe Congress today could follow the advice?
Luis Russell’s Hot Six– “29th and Dearborn” from The Ultimate Jazz Archive. Recorded in October of 1926 in Chicago, Cathereine's dad Luis Russell led a band composed of himself on piano, Barney Bigard on tenor sax, Kid Ory on trombone, George Mitchell on cornet, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo and Richard m. Jones on “speech”. Ory and St. Cyr were also members of Louis Armstrong’s “Hot Five”, recording classics like “West End Blues”.
Catherine Russell – “Luci” from Sentimental Streak. Written by Catherine, she calls it a “gift of the muse”, coming to her one evening and serving as warning to change your evil ways. The band is Larry Ham on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, Brian John Mitchell on piano and James Wormworth on drums, with Larry Campbell giving a hand on guitar and mandolin.
Catherine Russell – “New Speedway Boogie” from Cat. A jazzy, bluesy version of the Robert Hunter-Jerry Garcia composition originally recorded by the Grateful Dead to comment on the tragedy at the Altamont concert outside of San Francisco. She stopped the show each night on the American Beauty Project tour.
Steely Dan – “Love is Like an Itching in My Heart/Band Introductions” recorded live in Boston during the Rent Party '09 tour. Walter Becker introduces his fellow musicians while the backing trio of Catherine, Tawatha Agee and Carolyn Leonhart-Escoffery cover the Supremes’ classic. Among the other jazz stalwarts in the band were Marvin Stamm on trumpet and Freddie Washington on bass.
Catherine Russell – “Troubled Waters” from Inside this Heart of Mine. An underappreciated tune scored by the Duke Ellington Orchestra for both Ivey Anderson and Mae West(!) , performed here as a sultry meditation . The band - Mark Shane on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, and Brian Grice on drums – crackles with intensity.