WALL STREET JOURNAL
June 14, 2006;
This Daughter of Jazz Is One Cool Cat
By NAT HENTOFF
After listening to a continuous stream of releases by purported rising jazz singers -- who couldn't have lasted through a chorus in a contest with Ella Fitzgerald or Betty Carter -- it's a delight to hear the real thing in Catherine Russell. After many years on the road with rock, blues, jazz, soul and gospel bands, Ms. Russell -- who will turn 50 in September -- finally has her own album as a leader: "Catherine Russell -- Cat" (www.worldvillagemusic.com. Also available on Amazon.com and at Barnes and Noble).
Cat, as she is called by fellow musicians, hits a groove (or, as she calls it, "the pocket") from note one on whatever she sings. From blues to ballads -- and in swingers that make me want to dance (if only I knew how) -- she tells an unusual variety of stories as if she were living them, and she has.
Accompanied by acoustic ensembles -- a blessed relief from electronically amplified distraction -- Catherine Russell is, she tells me, "on a mission to find rhythms that make you feel good all over, and in your hips. In jazz, you feel like moving to that rhythm even if you're not dancing. There's a joy in it."
She also finds joy in country music because "I like anything that swings." Starting with early George Jones recordings and Patsy Cline -- whose "Someday You'll Want Me to Want You" she turns into her own story in this set. Ms. Russell was also drawn to Hank Williams and Merle Haggard (whom she went to hear in his last New York gig).
"I love songs," she says, "that tell you about the lives of the people singing, as well as of the writers. That's why Frank Sinatra is one of my favorites. You really get what he's feeling when he sings."
I told her that Charlie Parker greatly puzzled many of his jazz associates with his abiding pleasure in listening to country music recordings -- and that he'd explain to the doubters: "Listen, listen to the stories!" Cat was glad to find that Bird was her soul mate in that music, as well as jazz.
Ms. Russell is part of a noble jazz lineage. Her father, Luis Russell (1902-63), was a pianist and leader of one of the most impressive big bands on the early New York jazz scene after leading a group in New Orleans and moving to Chicago, where he worked with King Oliver, who gave Louis Armstrong his first big break.
On "The Luis Russell Story (1929-1939)" from Retrieval, available at Worlds Records (worldsrecords.com), you can discover the too-long-forgotten Luis Russell band that, as British musician and critic Humphrey Lyttelton wrote, "not only romped but roared" -- with such sidemen as Henry "Red" Allen, J.C. Higginbotham and George "Pops" Foster. For a time, the band later became Louis Armstrong's backup unit.
Catherine Russell's mother, Carline Ray -- a bassist, pianist and singer -- is an alumna of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-female band that collectively and individually proved that women have "the chops" to swing as deeply as men. Now age 81, Ms. Ray is still performing and, says her daughter, recently bought a new bass and is also writing a musical.
Included in her daughter's debut CD is a song by Luis Russell that became one of the most requested numbers in Louis Armstrong's repertory, "Back o' Town Blues." That song resounds triumphantly in this set -- as does a rollicking fusion of Louis Jordan's "Juneteenth Jamboree" with "Royal Garden Blues," the latter long associated with King Oliver. And always searching for "melodies with beautiful stories in the lyrics," she brings back Jimmy Van Heusen's "Deep in a Dream."
For her next album, Ms. Russell has found "South to a Warmer Place," a song performed by Frank Sinatra that, she says proudly, "not even Michael Feinstein knew." The composers were Alex Wilder and Louis Reeves McGlohonos.
I asked her about her choice of a background of mandolin, violin, guitars, piano, organ, tambourine, drums and, on two numbers, pedal-steel guitar.
"With acoustic swing string bands," she said, "there's room for me to do anything I want to -- without fighting with the electric guitar." And she and the musicians were so comfortable with one another that most of the songs were recorded in two or three takes.
Duke Ellington had told me that he also preferred staying with that number in a recording studio. His reason was the same as Ms. Russell's: "Without the spontaneity," she explains, "you lose the edge. You lose what naturally happens between musicians as they inspire each other. And that's how you find 'the pocket.'" Which is what? "A pocket means to me what the feeling was when people were on a dance floor, like at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. That's when the music reaches into you."
I brought Ellington back into the conversation, recalling his telling me that when alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges would play one of his sensuously intimate solos in a ballroom, a sigh would come from one or more of the dancers; and, said Duke, "that sigh became part of our music."
"That," Ms. Russell said happily, "is another way of what I mean by 'finding the pocket.'"
Her view of the music she listens to and chooses to sing could be called holistic: "When the music is right, it heals everybody. It's all one energy -- the band, the audience, the melody, the lyric, the swing. If any one of those ingredients is missing, is not working together, you lose the totality of the experience, the groove. When I heard Duke, Basie, Sinatra, I always felt included in what they were saying in their music. And when I'm on stage for two hours, I feel like I'm sharing something that brings us all together."
With this first of what will be a series of CDs, her career as a headliner is just beginning.
Jazz, of course, has to keep moving on. But as venturesome and cutting-edge as it becomes, at the center of gravity that has always kept the music alive and surprising is "the groove" that Cat Russell embodies.
Her recording, she says at the end of its liner notes, is "Dedicated to my parents: Luis Russell and Carline Ray." She has certainly honored their heritage.
Mr. Hentoff writes about jazz for the Journal.