We hold these truths to be self-evident. Catherine Russell is a serious creator of joy — part of the pursuit of happiness.
She proved it again last night in her first set at Dizzy’s Club Coca C0la (part of Jazz at Lincoln Center, high above the Manhattan panorama). Catherine had four of her friends in sweet support: Mark Shane, piano; Matt Munisteri, guitar and six-string banjo; Lee Hudson, string bass; Mark McLean, drums. Their hour-long performance was varied, satisfying, light-hearted, and deep.
Much of her repertoire comes from two places: the blues, naughty, sad or springtly, from the Twenties to the Fifties; swing tunes from the great golden age. So Catherine gave us the blues by singing songs associated with Lil Green, Little Willie John, Dinah Washington, Wynonie Harris (ROMANCE IN THE DARK, I’m STICKIN’ TO YOU, MY MAN’S AN UNDERTAKER, and WHISKEY ON THE SHELF), moving from deep intimacy to mock-threat to a Dionysiac rent party.
In her swing mode, she romped through SHAKE THAT THING, EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY, invited us into a cab for DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM, made the room tilt with Ida Cox’s YOU GOT TO SWING AND SWAY and the Ellington-Strayhorn I’M CHECKIN’ OUT, GOOM-BYE. (Had Catherine been born a hundred years ago, she would be one of the deities of the Swing Era.)
But there’s a third side to Catherine that might be overlooked — that she is a peerless singer of love ballads — whether the object of devotion is a landscape (the touching EV’NTIDE by Hoagy Carmichael for Louis Armstrong) or a person (LUCILLE, written by Catherine’s father, pianist Luis Russell, for Louis to sing about his wife). In these songs, we heard a deep vein of tenderness, of love without irony being conveyed directly through Catherine’s voice.
And what a voice! She moves from a dark lower register to a trumpetlike delivery, rising to gospel / rhythm ‘n’ blues drama at her top. It’s a delight to hear her deliver a melody, apparently as written, but with subtle reshapings that deliver it anew, improvising in ways that always serve the song. Catherine’s swing quartet was simply delightful — starting the evening with a rocking yet leisurely exploration of ROSETTA — masters at play.
Here she is in March — with the Bohem Ragtime Jazz Band in Hungary and the great trumpeter Herbert Christ — offering us the NEW CALL OF THE FREAKS (reaching back to father Luis Russell’s searing hot band of 1929-30. students of lyric poetry will also want to memorize the refrain: “Stick out your can / Here comes the garbage man,” words to live by:
Catherine is a treasure. Her stint at Dizzy’s is from Thursday, April 25, to Sunday, the 28th. She turns timid, quiet audiences into swing enthusiasts — in the most delicious subtle ways.
May your happiness increase.