On 12 January 2014, Brooklyn-born singer-songwriter Brenda Russell will make a long-awaited return to New York. Her appearance at Joe’s Pub follows the release of her latest single “Against the Law”. Russell personalizes the civil rights struggle, sharing a story from her own life when it was “against the law to be black in America”. Released earlier in 2013, the accompanying video honored the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (28 August 1963.) Though Russell draws on the past, her song lyrics to “Against the Law” have a currency that resonates widely in a country still afflicted with racism and discrimination.
Of course, the pen of Brenda Russell has written some of the most indelible words and melodies of the past four decades. Supergroups like Rufus & Chaka Khan and Earth, Wind & Fire were early champions of her work while grande dames of pop and R&B like Diana Ross, Roberta Flack, Patti LaBelle, Tina Turner, and Donna Summer have all immortalized Russell’s compositions. Her solo career skyrocketed in the late ‘70s with her self-titled debut for A&M, an album that introduced “So Good, So Right” and “If Only For One Night” into the pop music vernacular. Joe Cocker and Luther Vandross covered each song, respectively, and “If Only For One Night” became a popular staple of Vandross’ concerts. By the mid-‘80s, the Grammy-nominated “Piano in the Dark” would earn Russell a Top 5 pop hit. Oleta Adams’ version of “Get Here”, the title track to Russell’s 1988 solo album, would follow at number five in 1991.
However, pop radio is just one of several places that’s been home to Brenda Russell’s talents. She scored the music to How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998) and co-wrote music and lyrics to the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical The Color Purple (2005), which had its London premiere in July 2013. One of Russell’s most recent New York appearances paired her with (the late) George Duke at The Blue Note. Their run of concerts in May 2011 merged the song books of both artists, with accompaniment by Terri Lynne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding. Perhaps the best way to experience Russell is simply to watch and listen as she sits behind the piano: a world-renowned composer manifesting her singular artistic vision on 88 keys. Indeed, that’s one of the first musical gifts New York audiences will receive in 2014.
// Notes from the Road
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