Before 2006, it was a stumper: What performer, raised hanging out in places such as Louis Armstrong’s house, has sung with Rosanne Cash, David Bowie, Al Green, Steely Dan and Dolly Parton? (You’ve got to love that resume.) New York City’s deft, uncategorizable singer Catherine Russell is the previously less-than-obvious answer. A widely in-demand, creative vocalist, instrumentalist and singing teacher since the mid-1980s, she’s never stepped out from stars’ ensembles to record on her own before this year’s eclectic, rhythmic Cat, on the World Village label.
Cat is a consistently involving and surprising recording that marries jazz-informed, rhythmically sophisticated and varied singing to instrumentation more associated with country — from mandolin to pedal steel to banjo.
Russell doesn’t really consider herself a “jazz singer," Ella Fitzgerald-style improvisational scat not being any significant part of what she does. She’s been willing to live with the label in an era when new soul singers get limited industry backing, blues singers wind up in a tiny genre cage, and rock and pop, as always, have set ideas about performers’ ages. (Her first disc under her own name arrived as she neared her 40th birthday.)
“I’m a singer. If I like a song, that’s it," Russell says. “Nina Simone is one of my inspirations, because she did whatever she wanted to do.…To me, good writing is universal; a good song can be done in many different genres."
The songs on Cat include off-the-beaten-track Sam Cooke compositions, a particularly swinging version of the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie" (in keeping with her skull and roses tattoo), and “Someday You’ll Want Me To Want You", best-known from lush Nashville Sound-era country takes by Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves.
Her song selection gets detailed attention. “I spend a lot of time researching songs," she says. “If there’s one line that I don’t relate to, I’ll not sing the tune. I see if I like the way the chords are going, whether the melody that fits with those chords is interesting, whether musicians would have a good time as an ensemble playing this thing. I also look at the message of the lyric, and how it tells a story."
Russell takes particular delight in bringing back into circulation some fine songs co-written by Louis Armstrong and her late father, Luis Russell, Armstrong’s longtime musical director and arranger in his New York years. (Their “Back O Town Blues" is on Cat; “So Little Time" will likely be on the follow-up.)
Luis was a swing pioneer pianist who migrated to New Orleans from Panama in 1919 after winning a lottery. He was an innovative bandleader in his own right; his orchestra introduced that American song classic “New Call Of The Freaks" ("Stick out your can, here come the garbage man!"). Cat’s mother, Carline Ray, is a Juilliard-trained musician, singer and teacher, still very much at work. She was the guitarist in the all-female big band the International Sweethearts Of Rhythm, played bass with R&B queen Ruth Brown, and worked with Mary Lou Williams and Leonard Bernstein.
In this sophisticated, musically adventurous New York atmosphere, with two parents renowned for their sense of swing, Catherine was virtually raised to follow in those well-timed footsteps — catching Thelonious Monk or Betty Carter live, while immersing herself in rock ‘n’ roll, by choice. With all of the instruments around the house, she was already playing violin, piano, percussion, and her grandfather’s mandolin as a child. She knew the early jazz and Afro-American string-band uses of acoustic instruments such as fiddle, mandolin and banjo before some teen years spent at a San Francisco-area commune introduced her more firmly to outright country music, bluegrass, the Grateful Dead, and traditional Irish tunes.
If you had to have a background to become a key ensemble singer with such tune-and-word-rhythm-driven performers as Dolly, Bowie, Isaac Hayes, Paul Simon and Rosanne Cash, Russell definitely had it — with the voice and musical smarts to match. As varied as her gigs of the past couple decades have been, she emphasizes that they’ve all been with artists who treat the act as an ensemble, not star and shooby-doo backup. All of them allowed, even required, musical input and interaction from her as a singer as much as from instrumentalists.
Having finally stepped into the spotlight, Russell has been enjoying the heady and apparently still surprising experience of having top musicians and new fans coming to check her out at varied festivals and venues. She’s still finding time to teach singing at the Boston’s Berklee College of Music — emphasizing interpretation of songs and bringing them home to listeners, clearly her own specialties.
“Listening is really a very physical experience, so it’s important how you use your voice to share an emotional experience," she says. “I try to work through what the writers may have been going through when they wrote it, what my experience of that might be now — and then I look someone in the audience in the eye and connect with them. The musical experience happens in that moment — which is what I love about music."
- Barry Mazor, No Depression, 2006