Concert Review - Jefferson Center in Roanoke, Virginia June 2009

Catherine Russell's delivery style honors the greats
Concert review: The Roanoke Times
By Tad Dickens

Taking songs that are 50, 60, 70 years old and making them sound fresh is a tough job. Performers often go too far, overplaying, oversinging, stretching for something to make those classics sound more contemporary.

There’s really no need for all of that, but that lesson can come only to those who have lived inside the songs. Catherine Russell is one of them.

Russell, a daughter of jazz music history makers, apparently has it in the blood. She showed it Saturday night to a crowd of about 385 at Jefferson Center’s 938-capacity Shaftman Hall.

Her method was clear from her first number, “Them There Eyes," which Billie Holiday recorded in the 1930s. Over her three-piece backing band’s mid-tempo swing, her rich and resonant alto deeply inhabited the lyrics, with a fully round sense of time and phrasing that was never cliched.

From “Lady Day," she moved on to Benny Goodman’s “All The Cats Join In," singing with a sense of fun and shimmying, her long braids flowing over her face, while pianist Mark Shane rollicked over his solo.

Later, Russell and sidemen Lee Hudson (upright bass) and Matt Munisteri (guitar) took a break for Shane to do some time-travel of his own. Shane told the audience about James P. Johnson, who ruled the 88s in early- to mid-1900s Harlem. Introducing “Carolina Shout," he said, “It’s not ragtime. It’s not honky-tonk. It’s James P. Johnson." Then Shane delivered an up-tempo, stride-heavy, roots tour de force that lit up the crowd.

The rest of the trio was impressive, too. Munisteri, on both electric guitar and six-string banjo, complemented Shane and Russell with spark, and launched several solos with twisting note selections, sharp attack and forays outside the norm. Hudson was a great example of the musicians’ adage, “you can tell someone is a good bass player when you don’t even notice him." He used the fretboard tastefully while he kept the pulse swinging.

Russell, who has made her living as a backup singer for such artists as David Bowie, Steely Dan and Rosanne Cash, has a great sense of musical humor to go with her vocal chops.

Her set list included “Quiet Whiskey," which didn’t cause trouble till folks “took you down … opened you up and passed you around," and “Kitchen Man," a song made famous by one of her heroes, Bessie Smith, with lyrics about a man whose “jellyroll is so nice and hot, never fails to hit the spot."

Russell’s father, the late Luis Russell, was bandleader and arranger for Louis Armstrong. Her mother, Carline Ray, still sings and plays bass today. It’s clear that her music at least in part honors their legacy.

Late in the show, an audience member called out for one of Catherine Russell’s rare originals, “Luci." She couldn’t end the show with a ballad she said, but she’d play it next time. Here’s hoping she has that and more contemporary music to complement her mastery of the old school.