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WICN Artist of the Month, September 2022: Catherine Russell

Written by on September 1, 2022

As many musically divergent roads can lead to a professional career in jazz, veteran vocalist, pianist, multi-instrumentalist, Grammy-award nominee, and winner Catherine Russell, has followed her own path.

With an established bloodline of famed musicianship from both parents, Luis Russell and Carline Ray, she was surrounded and influenced by a wide range of music, from the New Orleans big-band sound to old-time blues and jazz singers like Bessie Smith, Ruth Brown, and Etta James. With two professionally performing musicians as parents, Russell was constantly surrounded by music in her household, on the radio, and absorbing the live concerts and gigs that were an integral part of her upbringing.

Remarkably, her crossover influences include The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Nancy Wilson, David Bowie, and Steely Dan, along with gospel and opera music. To add to her musical diversity, Russell also was drawn to country music’s early stars, such as George Jones, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and Merle Haggard, stating she liked “anything that swings.”

Ultimately a voice “that wails like a horn and whispers like a snake in the Garden of Eden” has allowed her to remain in high demand through the decades, regardless of which style of music she would interpret. Always carefully constructing her own distinct original voicing and delivering a superb range, an example NPR review of her 2012 release Strickly Romancin’ captures her vocal take on an old blues cut Romance in the Dark as “gleefully stretching out words, fracturing syllables, adding unexpected emphasis. The song feels so personal and passionate here that it might as well originate with her.”

Catherine Russell comes from a self-admitted line of jazz royalty, starting with her legendary Panamanian father, the late Luis Russell, renowned pianist, composer, bandleader, and Louis Armstrong’s longtime musical director. Mr. Russell was a groundbreaking jazz man, leading one of the seminal early big bands. Per the accountable narrative, after winning $3,000, he moved his family from Panama to the United States. As leader of “one of the most impressive bands,” Russell played first in New Orleans, then New York City, and moving to Chicago in 1925, where he joined King Oliver as pianist. Russell would get his most significant professional break though with Louis Armstrong, “for eight years, the nucleus of Russell’s orchestra primarily functioned as background for the great trumpeter and vocalist (Louis Armstrong).”

Catherine’s mother, Carline Ray, was a pioneering vocalist, guitarist and bassist who performed with International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Mary Lou Williams, and Sy Oliver. At sixteen, she entered the Juilliard School of Music in New York, (graduating in 1946), first starting to accomplish playing bass before discovering an ear and proficiency for other instruments. As a gifted multi-instrumentalist, Ray’s range of music comfortably managed changes in genre from jazz, popular music, classics, and choral work. She was in demand to perform with a wide range of musicians, from backup vocals for Patti Page and Bobby Darin in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as well as performing choruses conducted by Leonard Bernstein. This ability to crossover into a variety of styles seems to have passed directly into her daughter’s DNA!

Catherine Russell graduated with honors from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City in the early ‘80s and began visiting clubs in New York City, connecting with other musicians all looking for a start to their performing careers. A chance to sing at the legendary New York comedy club Catch a Rising Star gave her critical exposure to a regular audience. Meeting Jimmy Vivino, NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien bandleader and guitarist, was her first significant break, as he asked her to join his band for a variety of gigs as a vocalist, playing in a wider range of nightclubs.

During the ‘80s, her connection with Vivino’s band led to meeting many other rock, pop and R&B artists. This revolving door of talent included the rising stars of that period, as Russell explains: “A lot of well-known people used to come and sit in (with the band), people like Phoebe Snow, Donald Fagen, a lot of different folks. That’s how I met Donald Fagen. That turned into working with the Rock & Soul Revue, which he had back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, which turned into working with Steely Dan in the early ’90s. One thing kind of led to the next, so I didn’t really plan anything.” Clearly Fagan’s reputation as a very particular and demanding bandleader reflects the vocal quality and command of musicianship Russell was already delivering early in her professional career.

When Steely Dan reunited in ‘93, Fagan asked her to join them, and she toured with the band until ‘96. As an in-demand backup vocalist for other major recording stars of this period, she performed with an A-list of talent including Cyndi Lauper, Jackson Browne, Michael Feinstein, Levon Helm, Paul Simon, Rosanne Cash, Carrie Smith, Dr. John, Joan Osborne, and Wynton Marsalis. Russell acknowledges that all these varied artists added to the palette of her style: “There’s a lot of different genres that shape what I do – I listen to people for what they bring and see how they do their thing, so it’s a lot of different influences.”

A very significant mentoring and lasting personal impact on Russell was meeting David Bowie and touring with his band from ‘02 – ‘04.  As a remarkably versatile musician, she would provide both backup vocals and be featured on guitar, keyboard, and percussion for his “Heathen Tour.” Russell reflects fondly about her professional and personal relationship with Bowie. “Working with David was a dream come true. I’d been a fan since 1971. He was such a gracious man, and musically generous. He brought out the best in me. In addition to background singing, he let me play several instruments: keyboards, percussion, guitar, and mandolin. He allowed me to stretch beyond what I thought I was capable of. He was caring, funny and loved his family. I am blessed to have known him.”

In ‘06, a significant and unexpected transition took place — the recording of her interpretations of select jazz and R&B songs, beginning with the release of her debut album, Cat. Well received by critics, it was a transition musically, as moving forward Russell would establish herself as one of the foremost jazz singers in the vein of both traditional standards and an off-the-beaten-path selections. As reviewed by music critic Chris Nickson of AllMusic, “The world is never short of new jazz/blues singers, but with Cat, Catherine Russell stands out from the crowd…definitely one of the more adventurous – and friendly – singers mining the seam of jazz-blues.” 

Followed by Sentimental Streak (2008), Russell turned back to the foundational period of the 1920s – ‘40s, blending jazz, blues, and R&B, including compositional tunes by her late father Luis Russell, Hoagy Carmichael and Louis Armstrong. Reviewed as “a knock-out concoction”, delivering some torch singing reminiscent of older blues divas with “spot-on delivery and a confident grasp of the songs that packs the true punch.”

Her Grammy nominated Harlem on My Mind (2016) brought overall international recognition, as she mined the heyday of Harlem’s jazz age in song selections including the title cut and I Can’t Believe You’re in Love with Me and The Very Thought of You. With her own arrangements (along with superb saxophonist Andy Farber) for each well-worn jazz classic, the album also swings hard. Particularly on Irving Berlin’s Swing Brother Swing and Fats Waller’s Blue Going Grey Over You – Russell’s vocal prowess is front and center. JazzTimes critic Christopher Louden made comparisons with jazz diva Dinah Washington, “same remarkable vocal dexterity-blues shouter meets jazz stylist; same espresso-strength power; same immaculate clarity; same ability to shift seamlessly from sassy to torchy.”

Her second Grammy-nominated album, Alone Together (2019) harkens back to the Swing Era, as Russell returns to her love for the music of this period, and the anchor of what moves her musically. In an interview with Syncopated Times (August 2022) she elaborates, “I like music that swings. I like good melodies, good stories, so the first thing I look at is the lyrics to any song. Does it have a buoyant quality to it? Is it danceable? Does it have a good story? That’s really what I look for. Music that swings and I like early blues from the ’20s. I like rhythm and blues from the late ’40s to mid-’50s. So those are three of the elements I look for.”

Her most recent release, Send for Me, (April 2022) again takes a period-piece reflection on love ballads with a mix of blues, focusing on American songbook standards from the ‘40s and early ‘50s. Teamed with her current touring quartet, Russell expresses the mood and nightclub feel of an intimate audience. Some lesser-known recordings are also featured such as Did I Remember made unforgettable to Russell by Billie Holiday’s version and the bluesy, sultry Make It Last, a Bessie Smith association, and At the Swing Cat’s Ball, where Russell pays tribute to her father Luis having found a recording of his orchestral arrangement.

An important part of Russell’s impeccable standard of performance, both vocally, musically and with attention to arrangement, is her self-professed dedication to preparation. In a recent DownBeat interview, she spoke to this point: “My time on stage is completely consumed with making music and having a good time. If my mind is full of, ‘Did I do this? Did I do that?’ then I’m not present. So, preparation, for me, is everything.” Russell also pays tribute to her main influence when she talks about lyric-less improvising, “When I listen to what you can do with words and phrases, I go back to Louis Armstrong because he was such a master. Where I connect to jazz and vocal improvisation is through the story.” These attributes are set signatures and requirements of the accomplished singer dedicated to her art form.

With a resume of performances at all major jazz festivals, nationally and internationally, Tanglewood, The Kennedy Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall, as stated by her AllMusic bio page, “Russell has emerged as a retro old school vocalist for the ages.”

Currently, on tour with a quartet including guitarist Matt Munisteri, pianist Sean Mason, bassist Tal Ronen, and drummer Mark McLean, Russell creatively varies her lineup and venues including appearing this Fall in an outdoor amphitheater in Athens, Greece in a Jazz at Lincoln Center production including a full all-star band. Reflective of her range of versatile singing abilities, Russell’s autumn tour schedule is also an example of her virtuosity – as other related shows are incredibly varied in lineup and genre. Clearly, beyond being an extraordinary vocalist, she has established her own set of credentials in jazz, swing, and blues, bringing to life each era she records or performs.  

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