Catherine Russell Swings and Sways at Dizzy’s in New York
“I’m shooting high, got my eye on a star in the sky,” Catherine Russell sang in her opening number at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on Feb. 24. With a sold-out crowd at her feet, and the club’s floor-to-ceiling views of the twinkling Manhattan skyline at her back, she seemed to have already reached the lofty goal of “I’m Shooting High.”
A one-woman reclamation project for classic jazz, blues and r&b from the ’20s to the ’50s, Russell likes to have a good time, and her mood was infectious. After flourishing for decades as a backup singer for some of the biggest names in music—Steely Dan, Paul Simon and David Bowie, among many others—Russell is celebrating the release of her fifth CD, Bring It Back (Jazz Village), since launching her solo career in 2006. “I didn’t start recording my own albums until I was in my late forties,” she told WBGO’s Rhonda Hamilton in a pre-concert onstage interview. “So it’s never too late!”
Her years as a supporting player have paid handsome dividends in confidence and performing chops, now that the spotlight is firmly on her. A versatile singer who evokes Bessie Smith one moment and Ruth Brown, Dinah Washington or Peggy Lee the next, she is capable of purring in a low register that is as warm as cognac, but she can also hit clarion high notes. What really makes her special, however, is not so much her technical gifts—it’s her innate sense of swing, mastery of phrasing and her actor’s ability to fully inhabit a song’s lyrics.
Russell described her years at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts as pivotal, especially in helping her select song material. “[It was] one of the best decisions I ever made,” she said in the interview. “When I choose songs, I choose them first for the lyrics, because if I can’t tell the story, I can’t really sing the song.”
Vintage jazz and r&b is in Russell’s blood: She was born to jazz royalty and proudly carries on the tradition. Her father, Luis Russell, was a big band leader who served as Louis Armstrong’s musical director from 1935–’42, recording many hits for Decca. Her mother, Carline Ray, a Juilliard-trained guitarist, bassist, composer and contralto, played guitar with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and Mary Lou Williams before becoming an in-demand studio bassist.
At Dizzy’s, Russell performed several songs recorded by Armstrong and based on her father’s charts (“I’m Shooting High,” Harold Arlen’s “Public Melody Number One” and “Back O’ Town Blues”), as well as a song written for Armstong by her father that was never recorded (“Lucille”). As on the new CD, she combined these and other swing classics with a potent infusion of hot-blooded blues and r&b from the late ’40s and ’50s.
On “Bring It Back,” a Wynonie Harris track from 1952, Russell sashayed to the languid big band blues, swinging her hips and throwing her body into the lyric: “I love you like you love me/ We make a real fine pair/ But ain’t nothin’ shakin’/ When the dawn starts breakin’/ With me over here and you over there.” In this number, as often during the evening, it was all about the tempo: slower than you might expect, generating a blues feel almost unknown in current popular music, but perhaps ripe for rediscovery. Tenor saxophonist Andy Farber and guitarist-musical director Matt Munisteri deepened the groove with solos based in the blues.
Throughout the evening, the big band arrangements, mostly by Farber, were inventive and swinging, played with panache by Russell’s excellent band. “You Got To Swing And Sway,” a dance tune from the ’30s by Ida Cox, smartly repackaged the rhythms of that era. On “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart,” Farber’s persuasive arrangement of the great Ellington song wittily quoted “Once In A While,” another hit of the era, which Armstrong had recorded with Russell’s father.
On a stripped-down rendition of Fats Waller’s “You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb,” Russell was accompanied only by Mark Shane’s exemplary piano, skillfully evoking the stride master, and marvelous comping and soloing by Munisteri.
Russell’s reading of Al Hibbler’s classic ballad of seduction “After The Lights Go Down Low” yielded her biggest ovation of the night, as she delivered a pleading, testifying, flat-out sexy performance that seemed to raise the temperature in the room by several degrees.
“A friend of mine turned me on to this Johnny Otis tune,” she said, introducing the nearly forgotten 1952 Esther Phillips hit “Aged And Mellow.” The friend was her sometime boss Donald Fagen, who showed up to catch the evening’s second show. The song’s hook—“I like my men like I like my whiskey/ Aged and mellow”—elicited a big laugh and a round of applause. Played at a leisurely pace, the tune was a convincing advertisement for the pleasures of slowing the damn thing down, as well as a showcase for Russell’s dramatic talents.
It might be a pipe dream to think that we’re due for a revival of this kind of entertaining, soul-satisfying big band singing. The crowd at Dizzy’s certainly seemed to go wild for it. One can always dream.