Catherine Russell preview: Artful swing from the ground up

Renowned jazz singer's new album is grounded in her Harlem roots 


“Some people feel music from the top down; they’re not hip-shakers. They like the violins and long tones,” Catherine Russell, 60, said from her downtown Manhattan home in late September. “Some of us are more rooted in the ground. We hear it from the ground up. Music makes me want to move.”

Female jazz vocalists like Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters, Mildred Bailey, Etta James and Dinah Washington were ground-up performers as well. Called “the best blues and jazz singer going today” by the Wall Street Journal, Russell can sing those stars’ signatures almost better than they did themselves. That’s jazz, that’s art: grabbing the past, moving forward with it, putting an individual twist on it.

Catherine Russell performs Tuesday in Portland.

Catherine Russell performs Tuesday in Portland.

Next Tuesday at Portland’s Old Church, Russell will sing with her trio — pianist Mark Shane, Matt Munisteri on guitar, and bassist Kerry Lewis – who have worked with her on her six solo albums. The show is part of PDX Jazz’s fully loaded fall series.

Russell sang back-up for David Bowie, duetted with Paul Simon on “Slip Slidin’ Away” during his 1993 Concert of a Lifetime, danced from age 8 till 12 at the Metropolitan Opera’s Aida. Her voice has been on more than 200 albums. But as a soloist, she is most at home with jazz and blues, and it’s there she swings most convincingly.

Critics call Russell’s voice honeyed, sultry, fluid, fresh, versatile, dusky, stalwart, and soulful, but she refuses to define it. “That’s for other people to say,” she insists. “I’m just interpreting the song the way I feel it.”

She will grant that she sings alto. And she won a Grammy in 2012 for her “Crazy Blues” contribution to the soundtrack of HBO series Boardwalk Empire.

On her new album, Harlem on My Mind, Russell makes well-worn jazz classics (“I Can’t Believe You’re in Love with Me,” “The Very Thought of You,” “You’ve Got the Right Key but the Wrong Key Hole,” “Blue Going Grey over You,” “You’re My Thrill,” “When Lights are Low” etc. ) her own with new arrangements – five by the album’s sax player Andy Farber. Russell arranged the horns on “Talk to Me, Talk to Me.”

One of Russell’s favorites is “Swing! Brother, Swing!,” a high-energy, hip-moving Billie Holiday tune. “I like combing the early Billie Holiday, not only the later stuff and the ballads that everyone is familiar with,” she says.

Speaking of swing, Russell, knows how to do it as well as she explains it.

Swing, she says, “is that pocket where music sits. You feel like you can dance to it. The rhythm section becomes one person and you feel the backbeat. All the musicians are communicating: they hit the backbeat at the same time,” she explains. “You know how you can put a needle on the record and it’s not quite sitting in the groove? (That’s when things don’t swing.) Swinging is like perfect light, a Van Gogh painting, perfect expression, a particular kind of rhythm. Bach swings too, you know. Everyone feels that pulse at the same time.”

Rooted in Harlem

Though she doesn’t live in uptown Manhattan, Harlem runs deep in Russell’s roots. Her mother Carline Ray, a captivating member of the mid-‘40s International Sweethearts of Rhythm, was born and raised in Harlem and graduated from Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music. A classically trained contralto, Ray exposed her daughter to singing and performing. She also supported Russell’s early dance career, playing the piano at the famous dancer/choreographer Katherine Dunham’s studio where Russell, from 5 years old, rehearsed. Her father, Luis Russell, led a band that played in Harlem from the 1920s to the mid-‘40s and worked as Louis Armstrong’s musical director.

So there’s the inspiration, in part, for Harlem on My Mind.

When Harlem’s Apollo Theater opened to African-Americans in 1934, all kinds of great jazz and soul singers began to perform there, including Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Pearl Bailey, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Sarah Vaughan. If the Apollo and its performers made Harlem a magnet for some of the world’s hippest mid-century music, its tunes — part of the American jazz songbook written and arranged by such notables as Irving Berlin, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Ray Noble—are what Russell’s new 12-cut album celebrates.

Russell is out and about on a rigorous national schedule pushing the new release, with  more than 25 gigs between now and Christmas, including Jazz at Lincoln Center holiday concerts with Wynton Marsalis and his orchestra.

Russell sleeps when she can (often on the plane), wears earplugs if she must, exercises regularly, eschews junk food, and takes her demanding professional schedule in stride. “That’s what we do,” she shrugs. “I’m happier not being in one place.” She can afford to be, knowing that her music keeps her “rooted in the ground.”

Catherine Russell performs at 7:30 p.m. October 11, at Portland ‘s Old Church concert hall, 1422 SW 11th Ave. Tickets available online.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is  

One Response. Have your say.

  1. Susan Thomson says:

    You wrote a review full of Catherine. Great! No messin around with anything else..’cept her inspiration. Thank you. Can’t wait to catch her tomorrow night!

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