Profile - Jeff Spevak in Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

Catherine Russell is bound to leave her mark at Jazz Festival

Jeff Spevak
Staff music critic

(June 3, 2007) — Meet Catherine Russell: Her Panamanian-born father was Louis Armstrong's band leader; her mother a classically trained pianist, singer and bassist who swung with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm in the '40s, and is still performing today at age 82. Russell knows Bill Monroe's bluegrass and Irish guys singing Celtic music. She played mandolin in a couple of San Francisco string bands, backed Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, Cyndi Lauper, Steely Dan and Paul Simon, co-wrote a song on her new album that she would have loved to hear Patsy Cline sing and was once a Deadhead, following the band to a couple of hundred shows and getting the familiar skull-and-roses tattoo on her shoulder.

And just a couple of years ago, she was touring with David Bowie, "playing guitar on 'Ziggy Stardust,' thinking 'Yeah, this is cool.'"

But Catherine Russell comes to the Rochester International Jazz Festival on June 14 clearly defined as a jazz and blues singer, although the show-stealing, 50-year-old sidewoman waited until last year to put out her own album, Cat. "Nobody's getting any younger," says the New York City resident with a sigh.

One unknown name always seems to emerge at the jazz festival, leaving a buzz in his or her trail. Two years ago it was the scat-singing Raul Midon. Last year, the energetic violinist Billy Bang. This year, Cat suggests it could be Catherine Russell.

"When we were putting the songs together," she says, "before I had a record deal, I said, 'I'm just going to record what I like, and see if at the end of that we have something that hangs together.'"

They do. Out of that Cuisinart of experience comes a surprisingly elegant vocalist, one who owes more to Ella Fitzgerald than Jerry Garcia, and a musician whose sound owes more to Bill Monroe and Django Reinhardt than David Bowie. Cat hangs together on the strength of Russell's supple singing, and a string band that on one track offers the swing of "Blue Memories" and on the next the Parisian café accordion of "Can't We Be Friends."

That she has been able to sort out her dizzying musical interests and find her own sound is notable. The influence of her father, Luis Russell, was all about "the early period of jazz coming to New Orleans, jazz and swing, big band arrangements," she says. "But I was kinda born too late to be a big-band vocalist."

At her Bronx junior high school, Russell's best friend taught her how to play guitar. "We sang all of the war-protest songs in junior high school assemblies," she says. "Simon & Garfunkel, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan. Then we were separated for years, and she tracked me down." Today that best friend, Bonnie Abrams, is a well-known folk and klezmer musician in Rochester, with several albums of her own. "We're like twins finding each other," Russell says.

Other influences? "I discovered old-timey American and Irish music when I was in my teens," she says, although it had actually been there all of the time; her grandfather had played mandolin, and there was always one around the house. "I couldn't believe it; I couldn't believe how beautiful it all was. I went in search of who could teach me."

By her 20s, she was jamming with the string bands in New York City's Eagle Tavern. "There was real bluegrass and an old-timey scene," she recalls. "Bill Monroe would play at New York University, and you could go and see him for $3."

As Russell evolved, the blues came in another window. "That's how I got all my gigs, was singing the blues," she says. "And when you're singing live with a big blues band, you've gotta project."

It's a nomadic resume, but it was her voice the landed Russell all of those gigs backing high-profile rock and pop stars. By the time she landed two tours with Bowie, starting in 2002, the reputation of her singing was strong enough that all he wanted was a Polaroid picture of Russell, just to see what she looked like.

"That was probably one of the best experiences I had, because it was a real rock and roll band, running from the paparazzi, things like that," she says. "David actually let me play all of my instruments: keyboards, guitar, mandolin, percussion. It was a wonderful, incredible experience. Just to be onstage with this great man, who I have been a fan of since the album Ziggy Stardust."

It was all so big, loud and exciting, but Russell also realized: "I've done everything else except my own gig."

For Cat, she wrote only one song, teaming up with Paul Kahn for "Blue Memories." Otherwise, "I hunted for standards that aren't done very much, although I love singers like Peggy Lee and Dakota Staton." So she covers Lee's very familiar "Darn That Dream," and Staton's marginally known "The Late, Late Show."

But mostly, Cat explores forgotten standards. Even the two Sam Cooke numbers are virtually unknown. "While a bunch of people are recording the American songbook," she says, "they seem to be doing the same material." (Paging Mr. Rod Stewart!)

And then, there's the Grateful Dead influence.

It's in the attitude: "I always liked skulls and roses when I was a kid," Russell admits. "I was fascinated with bad boys and bikes. I never went out with a bad boy, but I always liked the bad boy, biker thing. And I always wanted a tattoo."

And it's in the music: "The Grateful Dead were big jazz fans," she points out. "They're fans of everything; that's why I was drawn to them. Blues, jazz, bluegrass, country, everything I like.

"I loved Jerry Garcia's guitar sound, that bobbing, rhythmic guitar thing. I like all of the elements. Phil Lesh's melodic bass, the polyrhythmic and melodic percussion that moves around. And the songs are great."

In fact, she closes Cat with the Dead's "New Speedway Boogie," certainly her most curious selection from the American songbook:

One step done and another begun,

And I wonder how many miles.

Sage advice from Garcia and Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, for a late bloomer who has much ground yet to be covered. "I hope to live a long time and have a good time," Russell laughs, "and sing the blues like Alberta Hunter, until I'm in my 90s."