A great voice, the kind that causes an immediate heart flutter and is immediately recognizable, is rare. Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Steve Winwood — add your favorites, but the list isn’t all that long. I would add Catherine Russell, who had a year to remember: featured in one of the best recordings of 2022 from Millennial Territory Orchestra, Good Time Music (Community Music, Volume 2), and putting her terrific Send For Me.
Russell isn’t a household name. She isn’t even one of the “unsung” (pun intended) but astonishing voices from 20 Feet From Stardom, the lovely documentary film about the Black female singers who have made so many rock stars sound good over the years. Russell has toured with or appeared on recordings by David Bowie, Madonna, Steely Dan, Diana Ross, the Spin Doctors, Roseanne Cash, and many, many more. But she is certainly not a soul diva who didn’t “make it”.
Instead, Russell is a jazz/blues/soul singer who, when she isn’t singing background harmonies, aspires not to any pop charts but to the realm of historical art song, American style. Her father, Louis Russell, was an authentic voice in the jazz of the first half of the 20th century, leading influential bands and acting as musical director for no less a talent than Louis Armstrong. His daughter’s dream—which she is in the middle of achieving gloriously—is to interpret that earlier music but tracing it through the 1960s and 1970s as it turned into modern Black music.
Russell has now released eight recordings of her own since 2006 when Cat was released. Two of those sets were Grammy nominees for “Best Jazz Vocal Album”. The albums, including the new Send For Me, are a remarkably consistent body of work, even though they are not, internally, stuck in one place. On the debut record, for example, Russell interpreted one of the music’s earliest texts, “Royal Garden Blues”, the mid-century standard “Darn That Dream” composed by Jimmy Van Heusen, and “New Speedway Boogie”, a Grateful Dead tune written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter about the infamous Altamont concert from late 1969.
What Russell does on each of her records is (1) to put across music that dates back about a century with an alchemical combination of period authenticity and modern attitude and (2) to perform more modern tunes that demonstrate that all of this music is utterly connected and—under the spell of her voice—equally valid and alive.
On Send For Me, for example, her take on “Back to New Orleans” is propelled by tuba and banjo (period authenticity) but sounds considerably less affected and more up-to-date than some of the self-conscious throwback music of, say, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens‘ old-timey string band. No offense to Giddens, but Catherine Russell sounds like someone who is singing music that is modern to her in every way rather than putting on period clothing as a kind of act. But then, on “Send For Me”, which was a hit for Nat Cole in 1957 (#6 on the pop chart) and later recorded by Marvin Gaye, Russell presents as a wailing blues/soul singer grooving atop a rock ‘n’ roll backbeat. There are modern jazz ballads (“Make It Last”) and popping blues songs (“You Can Fly High”), not to mention smokey torch songs like “In the Night” that are relaxed intensity, defined.
I saw Russell perform in a packed room with her trio (music director and guitarist Mark Munisteri, along with acoustic bass and piano—no drummer necessary) at Blues Alley in Washington, DC. She was just a week off touring with Donald Fagen and Steely Dan, where she is one of three singers giving those mysterious 1970s rock songs their harmonic shimmer. She was suffering from the edge of a cold, but it wasn’t anything to keep her from capturing the room.
Russell is a tiny woman, and while her voice is enrapturing, it’s not brassy or huge. Still, as she dances and moves her hands to match the shape of the music, her voice has a command and assurance that belies her stature. She is so at home in all the music that she seems like a jukebox for a century of the coolest music ever. Blues Alley was all joy for 80 minutes that night.
About a week later, I got to ask Russell about her project and what it’s like to be an artist in jazz and blues in this strange, post-pandemic time of TikTok and Taylor Swift.
Through family and training, you have roots that connect you to New Orleans and to the majestic music of 100 years ago. But your wheelhouse extends easily to recent decades’ soul and R&B music. Talk about the connection, the through-line between those eras, and how that defines your creative project.
My father’s music was some of the first I heard in my life. My mom would put on these compilation LPs of his stuff, and I thought, This sounds fun: it’s spirited, it’s lively, you can dance to it—the arrangements and the music are great. That made an impression on me as a kid, long before I thought about performing. Then, of course, I grew up with Motown and Stax. I loved Levi Stubbs and soul singers like Laura Lee. I still love the passion and confidence I heard in those singers. That music, and the tradition of gospel music, made me want to sing.
I grew up in New York until I was 16 or 17 and then finished high school in the Bay Area. As a teenager, I got to be in Darrel Coley’s choir on the west coast. He brought me out of myself as a singer. I was scared at first, but he gave me an opportunity. I wanted to share my heart and lift up the room.
When you’re starting out, you try to figure out if you can pay your bills with this. So, I just tried to sing everywhere I could and fit into any scenario. I started as a dancer when I was a child and started singing seriously in my college years. I was in choirs singing classical music, and then, at Sonoma State University, I heard musicians playing country-swing music. We played for dancing out in Sonoma County. The guitar player was also a songwriter, and I sang some of his tunes. It was the beginning of me singing music that swung.
By the late 1980s, I was back in New York City. For a while, I sang soul and blues with the house trio at Catch a Rising Star. Gary Gold was the drummer in that trio, and he invited me to the club Hades after our gigs at Catch. Jimmy Vivino was leading that band. He said, keep coming, and I’ll ask the club to pay you. I met Donald Fagen of Steely Dan there. I worked on Fagen’s touring show, “The Rock and Soul Review”. It was really organic. A bunch of people who really loved music, making music they liked. All of this grew out of the Libby Titus “New York Nights”. New York was a tight-knit community of musicians back then.
You have to love making music with good musicians – and New York has the best. I learned from everybody I’ve worked with. I have gotten a lot of chances to improve my art, whether at charity events, theaters, little and big clubs, or touring. From my roots in jazz to all this work in contemporary music, it all helps you get better.
Your work in support of other artists is eclectic, from classic rock to bluegrass, from pop artists to alternative folk music. Discuss the contrast between bringing out the best in others versus making your own statement.
One feeds the other.
I used to be very nervous performing. But not anymore. Doing my own thing has relaxed me. I’m a happier person. I love singing harmony and backing people up, but as a solo artist, I must push myself forward, staying on the path I’ve created. I come out of those 1920s female blues singers. So, as a solo artist, I explore that connection back in history. I’m researching and collaborating with arrangers. What songs am I going to sing, and what textures will I use in my version? My band knows a lot about all eras and styles. I research lyrics, composers and arrangers, the stories, and the keys. There is a story in all of it.
I used to spend hours in record stores, reading all the liner notes. Who’s singing on this? What’s different between southern soul and the Philly sound? How much is straight out of the church, and how much is jazz-inflected? What are the nuances?
Listening to myself sing, I would ask, where did I get that phrase? Did I hear that in a slave song?
Alberta Hunter [the singer whose career flourished in the 1920s and 1930s and was then revived in the 1970s and 1980s] was like my musical grandmother – the way she inhabited a lyric and owned the audience. She was beautiful and strong. I used to see her perform at the Cookery in New York all the time. One time she looked at me and said, “Where you been, I haven’t seen you in a while.” I would sit in the front and drink it all in. Ruth Brown was my other school on how to put on a show. Those two taught me 90% of what I do in my show today.
Your current touring band is a string trio in the style of Nat Cole’s classic band with no drums. Talk about that decision and how that works for the music.
When we were conceiving this band concept around 2004, I wanted something flexible. I can do a duo with a pianist, a trio with piano and bass, and so on. We do it drumless quite a bit. I’m picky about drummers, but my guy knows where I sit in the pocket – he plays a lot for singers and knows how to give you the right bed for what you do. Not too loud.
In certain venues, you can and should play without drums, and my guys swing so hard that drums aren’t may not be necessary. I add drums when I’m playing at a blues festival or a larger place.
Let’s talk about the economics of being an artist in 2022. You make choices that balance all sorts of priorities in touring/recording with your band, supporting the likes of Steely Dan, and finding time for yourself. In a world where you didn’t have to make the rent or mortgage, would you still do it all?
I don’t like to think about the economics!
Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of support. I’ve been doing solo recording and performing for 17 years, and it has built up so that I get paid a little bit more as I return to particular venues. My first goal is always just to be invited back – I want to do well for the club, the patrons, and the booking people. There’s a whole network of arts presenters. They want to present good music, so you develop these relationships, and they come back to you. You develop a circuit of places you play.
We all want to increase our salaries as we go along. And fortunately, this has happened. You need a team, so I have to pay my publicist, management, musicians, social media, booker, and so on. It’s a balancing act.
Balancing my solo work and backup singing can be tricky. My work is booked more in advance, whereas the Steely Dan tour sometimes works with less notice. I feel grateful for the steady work I’ve been about to do, touring with other great musicians. My first tour was with Samantha Fox, but I’ve done so much. I also toured with [comedian] Robert Klein because I used to record demos for his musical director Bob Stein.
What’s the “dream project” for an artist with a range as wide as yours?
I have a list. It used to be doing a big band album, but now I’ve done that. I did a project with Roseanne Cash a while ago that was traditional gospel stuff. I loved it. So I would love to record a traditional gospel album with a harmony group like the Fairfield Four.