[1 July 2010]
Catherine Russell’s tremendous musical talent is an open secret. She’s been a back up singer for rock royalty like Madonna, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Jackson Browne, and others. She also descends from jazz royalty. Her dad Luis Russell was Louis Armstrong’s musical director during the ‘40s, and her mom Carline Ray performed with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Mary Lou Williams, and Wynton Marsalis. You’ve heard Catherine’s voice even if you did not realize it was her on television and radio commercials for Bud Light, Oil of Olay, Dairy Queen, and J.C. Penny. The only question really is, after two wonderful and critically lauded albums, why don’t you know her?
Part of the reason has to do with her chosen style as a traditional jazz and blues singer. This has not been the hippest genre. Despite pristine credentials and rave reviews, not many people really want to listen to the retro sounds of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong by a contemporary artist. Russell’s latest recording offers wonderful versions of songs by these masters. Will this be the break though album that makes Russell a household name? Judging by the past, the answer is “no”, but judging by the performances here the answer should be a “Hell, yes!”
Russell performs with a warm sophistication that bespeaks elegance and refinement even when singing tunes about the joys of Louis Armstrong‘s “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque” and the drunken pleasures of Wynonnie Harris‘s “Quiet Whiskey”. Russell can also take bawdy material like Ellington‘s “Long, Strong, and Consecutive” and Howlin‘ Wolf’s “Spoonful” and make the straightforwardly sexually charged lyrics sound delicate and subtle. She’s a master at restraint that never seems restrained, but just ladylike through her charisma and charm. Whether she’s crooning about wearing long underwear, on Maxine Sullivan’s love romp “As Long as I Live”, or Ellington’s “Troubled Waters”, where she proclaims she’s one of those “Devil’s daughters”, Russell comes off as a classy dame. Please note that Russell identifies the songs by the performers of the past rather than the songwriters. Her emphasis is always on how the songs were sung, not on the words and notes on the page.
Russell also has a strong sense of rhythm. Her rendition of Waller’s “We the People”, where she declares the people’s right to syncopation, positively swings, as does Russell’s take on Peggy Lee’s “All the Cats Join In”. These songs make you want to get off your butt, and beg to be heard live for full effect.
So what does it mean when an artist takes the music from an earlier era of American life and sings it straight, as if time hasn’t passed from the Roaring ‘20s, Great Depression, the Fabulous ‘40s, and the pre-rock ‘50s? Russell clearly implies nothing has changed: eating good food and drinking fine alcohol, the dance of love between a couple, the joy of life no matter what troubles are out there in the world, are what matters most. As she sings on the title cut, a wonderful Waller track, it doesn’t matter what’s going on outside. “Inside This Heart of Mine” is the only place that matters.