May 2008

Catherine Russell: Eye of the Cat

Forget what the Chinese zodiac tells you; this is shaping up to be the year of the Cat. After years on fame’s periphery, singer Catherine “Cat” Russell is, with the release of her dazzling sophomore platter Sentimental Streak (World Village), at long last earning the critical praise and widespread attention she so richly deserves.

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Stefan Falke

Catherine Russell

She has been immersed in show business virtually since birth. Her father, Panamanian musician and songwriter Luis Russell, literally won his ticket to Stateside success nearly a century ago, scoring a then-whopping $5,000 in his native land’s national lottery and using the money to pay his way to America. There he signed on with King Oliver, emerging as leader of one of the hottest jazz orchestras of the 1920s and then serving as pianist, arranger and music director for fellow Oliver alumnus Louis Armstrong. Russell’s mother is acclaimed bassist and vocalist Carline Ray, whose résumé includes stints with Duke Ellington, Sy Oliver and the celebrated, all-female International Sweethearts of Rhythm. She still actively performs at age 82.

As early as age 6, Catherine was dancing with Katherine Dunham’s acclaimed company. Professionally speaking, Russell has remained true to her feline nickname, steadily moving from one show-biz life to the next. She sang gospel in San Francisco; worked as an actress both off and on Broadway; belted out pop hits between comics’ standup sets at Catch a Rising Star; learned the art of big-band singing with Jimmy Vivino’s outfit; performed with Steely Dan, Paul Simon, Cyndi Lauper, Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash and David Bowie; and then finally, at age 50, recorded her debut album, 2006’s explosively good, genre-hopping Cat.

Like Cat, a joyous jumble of dreamy standards and sassy sizzlers spanning jazz, blues, country and soul, Sentimental Streak is a wide-ranging sojourn through Russell’s vibrant garden of influences. Musically speaking, she’s game for just about anything, reasoning that, “If it sounds good to me then I like it, my ear is drawn to it. If it has a good melody, a good rhythm and the level of musicianship is on a high plane, it doesn’t really matter what style it is. I’m as drawn to Ralph Stanley as I am to George Jones or Pavarotti or Maria Callas. Charlie Parker listened to everything. Ray Charles sang everything and was, to a point, ostracized for it. When I got to work with Bob Dorough, he told me the same thing about Miles. But I think being open to everything just expands the ear.” It is a lesson Russell learned from her equally dexterous parents who, she says, taught her “whatever you want to try is good.”

Musing about the decision to launch a solo recording career at the half-century mark, Russell recalls how she “got home from David [Bowie]’s Reality tour in the spring of 2004 and thought, Well, what haven’t I done yet? I knew I’d never done my own project but I wasn’t sure what I wanted it to be. So my partner at the time, Paul Kahn, said, ‘You should try a jazz thing,’ because I’d been working with legendary bass player Earl May (whose participation in Sentimental Streak marked his final recording session, prior to his death in January at age 80). Earl was playing with trumpeter Doc Cheatham, so I started to go to Doc’s brunch gigs at Sweet Basil, and they invited me to sit in. After Doc passed away, Earl said, ‘I have a gig for you. Come out to this place called Shanghai Jazz in New Jersey. I think they’ll like you.’ Turns out that Earl formed his quintet out of that gig, and that evolved into my ‘Why don’t you try a jazz thing?’ challenge. What I wanted to do was meld jazz with string-band music, so I wanted violins and mandolins and accordions and instruments that really incorporated into early jazz. We demo’d a bunch of songs that turned into the first CD. So, we figured, ‘Let’s do it again.’”

On Cat, Russell honored her father by covering his and Armstrong’s “Back O’ Town Blues.” With Sentimental Streak, recorded at Levon Helm’s studios in Woodstock, N.Y. and produced by Dylan associate Larry Campbell, the tribute extends further with gorgeous treatments of Luis’ “I’ve Got That Thing” and a cover of her father’s original arrangement, for Armstrong, of the saucily ebullient “So Little Time (So Much to Do).” There are also nods to various women whom Russell heralds as “tough, pioneers who blazed a trail and are timeless examples of excellence in their field,” including Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Lena Horne, Nellie Lutcher and Pearl Bailey. To quote Jackson Browne’s apt observation, she “[takes] us to the rooms where jazz was born.”

Perhaps, though, the album’s most poignant track is a gently flowing, bluesy treatment of Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans.” The decision to include the song was, she says, “doubly [important] for me, first because when my dad left Panama as a teenager and boarded a boat with his mother and sister, he headed directly for New Orleans to study and form bands. But also because, post-Katrina, we have got to keep drawing attention to this amazing hub of culture and talent.”

Before choosing “New Orleans,” Russell contemplated instead covering Carmichael’s “Rocking Chair” because “my dad recorded it with Hoagy in the early days. But the lyric didn’t really appeal to me because it’s about sitting in a chair and reminiscing about what you used to do and I thought, Well, I’m not ready to reminisce yet—maybe I’ll record it in 30 years! For me this is definitely just the beginning.”

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