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A monthly guide to early rock, blues, country, folk, and traditional jazz in the Seattle area and beyond.
Editor and Publisher: Doug Bright

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By Doug Bright

In refreshing contrast to most of today's artists, who are scared to death to risk their youth appeal by identifying with older genres and styles, vocalist Catherine Russell has staked her claim there. The daughter of parents who made their own important contributions to the swing era, she surrounds herself with accompanists who share her passion for vintage jazz. Her 2016 album
HARLEM ON MY MIND was nominated for a Grammy, she has a new one out called ALONE TOGETHER,
and she's currently involved in a biographical film about the pioneering New Orleans trumpeter Buddy Bolden.

A native New Yorker, Catherine Russell was born in 1956 to pianist Luis Russell, who led an influential band of his own in the late 1920's before becoming musical director for Louis Armstrong's orchestra, and singer/guitarist/bassist Carline Ray, who was a key member of the legendary all-female band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm
Hot Licks
in the mid-1940's and enjoyed a long and eclectic musical career until her death in 2013. Catherine's father had stopped performing by the time she was born, and he died when she was seven years old, but the records he made before and during his years with Armstrong provided some of her earliest childhood inspiration.

Nevertheless, she was also deeply influenced by the emerging soul artists of her time. "I started collecting recordings when I was seven or eight years old," she told NPR interviewer Terry Gross in 2008. "The first 45 I think I bought was by the Supremes, and I was really into Motown because that's what was playing on popular radio at that time."

Meanwhile, the young and precocious Russell was beginning to explore a range of artistic pursuits that would propel most kids into premature burnout. Joining choreographer Katherine Dunham's dance company at seven, she put in four seasons in a Metropolitan Opera production of "Aida" before abandoning the cutthroat competition of the ballet life to focus on music. She sang in choirs, studied classical violin in elementary school, then tuba, saxophone, and trumpet, and finally drums in high school. Having learned to accompany herself on her grandfather's mandolin as a child, she also developed a love of country music, joining a Southern-style old-time string band during her college days in California.

inspired by the political protest and innovative rock music of the hippie culture, Russell had left home for the Golden State at the age of fifteen and joined a commune in Sonoma County. She gained valuable experience a few years later with gospel innovator Daryl Coley's choir, The New Generation Singers.

Back home in New York, she enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduating in 1980. "I just really wanted to have a career in the music business," she told Terry Gross, "and I just didn't know how to start, so I started with whatever blues I knew and sat in wherever I could in clubs around New York City, and that kind of turned into a career in backup singing and touring."

Russell spent the next 26 years touring and/or recording with a virtual Who's Who of contemporary artists, including Al Green, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Cyndi Lauper, Steely Dan, Diana Ross, Jackson Browne, and Rosanne Cash. Despite her lifelong love for the music of her parents' generation, it never occurred to her to turn that love into a solo recording career until husband/booking agent Paul Kahn talked her into it. "I was turning 49 at the time," she recalled in the San Francisco Chronicle, "and I said, Well, it's really the only thing I haven't done; let's try this."

The resulting album, simply entitled CAT,
emerged on the World Village label in 2006 to widespread critical acclaim. Encompassing an astonishing range of roots-music territory, it showcased Russell's expressive alto voice with accompanists whose versatility fully matched her own. The opening track gave Bing Crosby's 1929 crooner hit "Can't We Be Friends" an easygoing swing treatment,
with keyboardist Don Stille maintaining the all-but-lost art of cocktail jazz accordion.
While Russell's delivery of the sassy blues "My Man's An Undertaker (he's got a coffin just your size)"
reflected Dinah Washington's 1953 recording, Stille's barrelhouse piano and Stuart J. Rosenberg's banjo-mandolin placed it in the 1920's with pioneering blues women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

Stille supported Russell's rendition of the Daakota Staton hit "The Late, Late Show" Cat

in a piano style somewhat reminiscent of Erroll Garner, but T. C. Furlong's pedal steel guitar effectively teleported it into the realm of western swing. Russell's composition "Blue Memories"
constituted a textbook example of pure honkytonk country, masterfully flavored by Furlong's steel and Rosenberg's fiddle. Paul Kahn's presence as supporting guitarist added further evidence to my musical twist on an old family-values adage: In this case, the family that picks together sticks together.

The album's most creative track ingeniously paired two previously unrelated gems of vintage jazz.
"Juneteenth Jamboree", recorded by Louis Jordan in 1940, took the venerable African-American holiday into the era of the swinging hipsters with the opener, "In eighteen hundred and sixty-five a hepcat started some jive." The surprise came after Russell completed the lyric when Rosenberg, back on banjo-mandolin, teamed up with Stille on accordion to lead the band in King Oliver's instrumental classic "Royal Garden Blues".

The profound importance of Sam Cooke in Russell's musical education is reflected in this album with his 1958 hit "You Were Made For Me"
and his composition "Put Me Down Easy",
recorded by his brother on Cooke's own independent label. On the latter track, graced by an irresistible down-home soul setting from organist Don Stille and guitarist Frank Portolese, Russell captured the essence of its composer's unmistakable singing style more convincingly than most of today's artists, male or female, can manage.

One of the album's most compelling selections was the Victor Young composition "Where Can I Go Without You".
In a cabaret jazz setting defined by Don Stille's piano and Frank Portolese's electric guitar, Russell interpreted this wistful torch ballad with chilling effectiveness. In choosing the songs she sings, she has often said that she likes to think of herself as an actress telling a story, and this is one of the most potent examples in her entire catalog.

Russell's 2008 World Village release, SENTIMENTAL STREAK,
Sentimental Streak
resulted from her longtime admiration for two of the psychedelic era's most celebrated acts: The Grateful Dead and The Band. In January of the previous year, she had participated in a sold-out New York concert that paid loving tribute to the Dead's 1970 album WORKING MAN'S DEAD.
Workingman's Dead (Expanded & Remastered)
Another participant was Larry Campbell, a multi-instrumentalist who had played a key role in Bob Dylan's road band, and it was he whom Russell hired as producer when she got the chance to cut her next album at Band co-founder Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock, New York.

Like its predecessor, it placed Russell in well executed small-group settings on material ranging from the old-time jazz-blues of Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter to the brooding romantic discontent of a late-period Sinatra ballad titled with the proposed solution, "South To A Warmer Place". Workingman's Dead (Expanded & Remastered)
Nevertheless, it sported a few more elaborate accompaniments than did her previous effort. Its buoyantly swinging opener, "So Little Time",
Workingman's Dead (Expanded & Remastered)
was gleaned from a record from the late Thirties during her father's tenure as Louis Armstrong's bandleader, and Stephen Bernstein's horn-section arrangement did it full justice. In another album highlight, Russell delivered an equally spirited rendition of "I've Got That Thing", written and recorded by her father in 1929 with King Oliver's orchestra. While the original featured Oliver's trumpet on the solos, Bernstein turned the instrumental break and subsequent accompaniment into full-throttle, collectively improvised Dixieland, with Larry Campbell providing some slide guitar for contrast and Matt Munisteri anchoring the Twenties-style sound with solid banjo chords.

By the time Catherine Russell's next album, INSIDE THIS HEART OF MINE,
Inside This Heart of Mine
emerged in 2010, she had installed the versatile, roots-oriented Munisteri as her musical director. On this album, he contented himself most of the time playing solid acoustic rhythm guitar behind Mark Shane's spirited stride-style piano and taking tastefully inventive single-string solos when his time came to do so. His most unique contribution, anchored by a bass line from Howard Johnson's tuba, applied bluesy bluegrass banjo styling to Willie Dixon's "Spoonful",
Inside This Heart of Mine
taking it far outside its Chicago blues context, but it worked surprisingly well.

Thanks to trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, the album was graced with irresistibly classic horn arrangements. On "Troubled Waters",
Inside This Heart of Mine
inspired by a Duke Ellington record from the mid-Thirties, his muted trumpet revived the playfully bluesy "wah-wah" style that characterized the Ellington band's most distinctive practitioner of the art, Bubber Miley. Kellso's luxurious slow-drag Dixieland setting was perfectly suited to "Slow As Molasses",
Inside This Heart of Mine
Rachelle Garniez's ode to summer. Matt Munisteri, trombonist John Allred, and clarinetist Dan Block all took good solos, but Kellso's solo stood out, recalling the rippling vibrato and high-flying phrasing of the great Louis Armstrong. The album's closing track, the Armstrong classic "Struttin' With Some Barbecue",
Inside This Heart of Mine
swung out with all the unrestrained Dixieland exuberance of his All Stars line-up in the 1950's.

Garniez, who had contributed a song and some accordion tracks to Russell's previous effort, added similar diversity to this one. With violinist Sara Caswell, she furnished sensitive orchestration to Paul Kahn's brooding "November (and you're not here)",
Inside This Heart of Mine
and her philosophical minor-key composition "Just Because You Can (doesn''t mean you should)"
Inside This Heart of Mine
swung at a relaxed tempo that fit its reflective mood.

On her fourth album, 2012's STRICTLY ROMANCIN',
Strictly Romancin'
Russell's vocals reflected the influence of earlier sources, but as with previous efforts, the interpretations were uniquely her own. One of the album's most unusual and compelling tracks was Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "He's All I Need",
Strictly Romancin'
a classic gospel-soul duet featuring Russell and her mother, Carline Ray, and accompanied fittingly and single-handedly by pianist Mark Shane. Russell delivered the 1946 Billie Holiday hit "No More",
Strictly Romancin'
a triumphant reversal of the torch-song theme with a demandingly complex melody, with notable conviction while Jon-Erik Kellso's horn arrangement ingeniously captured the mood with considerably less orchestration than appeared on Holiday's record. The same can be said of Hoagy Carmichael's "Ev'ntide",
Strictly Romancin'
Duke Ellington's "I'm Checkin' Out, Goom'bye",
Strictly Romancin'
and "Under The Spell of The Blues",
Strictly Romancin'
an early Ella Fitzgerald recording backed by Chick Webb's big band.

In Kellso's capable hands, the hot-jazz standard "Everybody Loves My Baby"
Strictly Romancin'
became one of the album's hottest and smartest tracks. He preceded Russell's vocal statement with a tightly harmonized ensemble arrangement and closed the tune in all-out Dixieland mode.

Meanwhile, guitarist Matt Munisteri fully justified his role as russell's musical director on this album, forming a tight rhythm section with pianist Mark Shane, bassist Lee Hudson, and drummer Mark McLean. Their expertise reached its high point with their approach to "I Haven't Changed A Thing".
Strictly Romancin'
In addition to creating fine, jazzy individual solos, Munisteri and Shane combined forces to produce the kind of seamless ensemble work that called to mind Nat Cole and guitarist Oscar Moore in the King Cole Trio. When teamed up with accordionist Joe Barbato in the rhythm section, Munisteri switched to acoustic guitar for lyrical solos in Django Reinhardt's French Gypsy-jazz style.
(This article will be continued in the next issue of Heritage Music Review. Catherine Russell's CD's are all available through her website,