The Jazz Scene: Dukes and Duchesses by Will Friedwald
Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola
Broadway at 60th Street, (212) 258-9595
The Dizzy's website correctly states that Catherine Russell was an "overnight success" following the release of her debut album, "Cat," in 2006. But it fails to mention that she had been singing professionally and mastering her craft for at least 30 years by that time. The music industry keeps trying to push jazz vocal prodigies on us, but the truth is you don't get to be the best blues and jazz singer going today "overnight." It took Ms. Russell decades to pay her dues, a fact that becomes abundantly clear with every note. Her singing is drenched in emotion, drama, experience and pure swing. Ms. Russell, who gave a triumphant concert last week for the Sidney Bechet Society, returns with her exuberant mix of blues, standards and jazz, ranging from Ethel Waters to the Grateful Dead—and, with any luck, an Ellington song in honor of his birthday.
In 1958, Ornette Coleman introduced his composition, "When Will the Blues Leave?" which, like a lot of his ideas, turned out to be highly prescient. There would always be jazz men capable of playing or writing a blues that sounded like a blues. But more often, the beboppers tended to create what one might call "stealth blues"—a composition that followed the form's technical outlines but sounded like something else. For far too many generations, from the 1960s until now, jazz singers seem to have forgotten the blues even exists, too busy making every third tune a bossa nova—or worse, an extended scat feature on "Autumn Leaves." (If I were a leaf, I'd fall too.)
For Ms. Russell, it was both her ability and her willingness to sing the blues that instantly distinguished her from other "new" jazz singers (she'd actually been making guest appearances on other recordings for at least 25 years by the time her own first album came out). In fact, her vocal on "Crazy Blues," with Vince Giordano's Nighthawks on the "Boardwalk Empire" soundtrack, helped earn that album a Grammy.
Since 2006, Ms. Russell has released four albums, and she drew from the lot of them at the Sidney Bechet Society event last Monday. Characteristically, the emphasis was on the blues, which itself covers a wide range of styles, from Papa Charlie Jackson's "Shake That Thing" to the Dinah Washington "My Man's an Undertaker" (the latter done in a vigorous two-beat with a banjo that made it sound more like 1923 than 1953). She also spontaneously rewrote Ma Rainey's "Blame It on the Blues" with topical lyrics torn from today's headlines.
Ms. Russell also has a predilection for tunes that Louis Armstrong recorded during the big-band era (like Hoagy Carmichael's "Jubilee" and "Ev'ntide"), when her father, the Panamanian pianist Luis Russell (1902-1963), was Armstrong's musical director. (During a show at Joe's Pub a few years ago, she projected home movies of Louis and Luis coddling her as a baby.) The climax of the Bechet concert was a recent discovery, a previously unknown tune written by Luis Russell titled "Lucille" in honor of Mrs. Armstrong, which was recently unearthed at the Armstrong House in Corona, Queens. Ms. Russell hasn't recorded the song, but it is on "Vocal Sides," a new album by her mother, the pioneering female bassist Carline Ray, who played with the ground-breaking "all-girl" band the International Sweethearts of Rhythm during World War II.
Apart from "Lucille," the album (produced by Ms. Russell) is highlighted by two stunning duets by mother and daughter on traditional spirituals, "Land Beyond the River" and "Hold On." The major news is that Carline Ray is making her debut album as a vocalist at age 85. Her daughter Catherine was 50 when she reached that point. Clearly, this is a family that doesn't believe in rushing into anything.
Will Friedwald, Wall Street Journal April 26, 2013