Tag Archives: Lil Green

CATHERINE RUSSELL SWINGS! WE SWAY (April 25, 2013)

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.

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CATHERINE RUSSELL WELCOMES US IN!

Photograph by Richard Conde

The Beloved and I were in the presence of magic at the Allen Room (Jazz at Lincoln Center) last night when singer Catherine Russell welcomed us in.

I don’t mean that she just began her show by saying, “I’m glad you are all here,” as artists usually tell an audience.

But from the first phrase of her opening song, I’M SHOOTING HIGH, she turned the Allen Room into something warm, making us feel both as if we were in her own magically cozy space.  Although she was stylishly dressed, in front of a ten-piece band, with the great New York street scene viewed from above, none of this distracted her from her great purpose: to lift us up through sweet swinging music.

She is such an expert performer that she made her art — clearly the result of great attention to detail — seem natural and intuitive, as if she and the band had just gotten together to have a good time.

Her delight in being with us was genuine.  When a couple, arriving late, made their way to their seats down front, Catherine beamed at them and said the most encouraging thing, “Welcome, welcome!” — and we relaxed even more, knowing that she meant it.

What she was welcoming us to was a musical evening of the most gratifying kind.  It was inspired by Louis Armstrong, for one, always a good start.  Most of the songs she and the band offered were connected to Louis, but she remained herself: no growl, no handkerchief, no mugging.  Rather she understood and demonstrated what Louis was all about — deep romance, great fun, rocking rhythm, daring improvisations.  Love, whether eager celebration or brokenhearted lament — was her theme.  And there was another man inspiring her performance: Louis’ friend, pianist, and musical director for many years: Luis Russell, who (by the way) happened to be Catherine’s father.  Pops and Daddy, if you will.

She drew most of her material from the great period of the Louis / Luis collaboration — 1935-42, the songs now collected on the great Louis Mosaic box set, so we got to exult with her for I’M SHOOTING HIGH (“Got my eye / On a star / In the sky”), dream along with I’M IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, swing out on I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE, mourn to I COVER THE WATERFRONT, laugh out loud to PUBLIC MELODY NUMBER ONE.  Catherine’s vision of Louis reached back to the Twenties for STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE, SUGAR FOOT STRUT (now, finally, I know what the lyrics are talking about!), and a romping EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY.

And it expanded to include BACK O’TOWN BLUES and LUCILLE, songs with which she had a very personal connection.  The first of those two — written by Louis and Luis — was the flip side of Louis’ 1956 hit, MACK THE KNIFE.  For some, that fact would be only a jazz-fiend’s winning Trivial Pursuit answer.  But for Catherine it was so much more.  The royalties from BACK O’TOWN BLUES enabled her parents, Luis and Carline Ray (Catherine’s mother had been in the audience for the first show) to purchase their first new car — a two-tone blue 1956 Mercury.  Even from row N, the Beloved and I could see how much that car had meant to the Russells from Catherine’s very warm retelling of the story.  And the very touching LUCILLE had been written by Luis in 1961 for Louis to try — a loving tribute to Lucille Wilson Armstrong . . . and, not incidentally, a beautiful song, now fully realized by Catherine.

She also showed her great emotional range in a dark reading of NO MORE, a sultry evocation of ROMANCE IN THE DARK, a hilarious I’M CHECKIN’ OUT, GOOM-BYE (evoking Abbey Lincoln, Lil Green, and Ivie Anderson, respectively).

Catherine is also an astonishing singer, if you haven’t guessed by now.  She has a perfectly placed voice, with power and depth but a kind of reedy intensity (she can sound like an alto saxophone but more often she reminded me of a whole reed section coming out of her long lithe frame).  Her sound is sweet yet pungent.  She has great dramatic intensity but she never seems as if she’s “acting.”  From somewhere inside the song, she lights the way, matching her readings of lyrics and melody exactly to the emotions . . . making familiar songs feel roomy and new.  And rhythm bubbles up through her — she was always in motion, rollicking around the stage, expertly dancing, embodying joy in person.

And the band was just as delightful: let me write their names here again to celebrate them: Matt Munisteri, Mark Shane, Lee Hudson, Mark McLean, Jon-Erik Kellso, Dave Brown, John Allred, Scott Robinson, Andy Farber, Dan Block.  New York’s finest!  Each one of them had something deliciously incisive to bring, from McLean’s saucepan-percussion reminding us of Zutty Singleton on SUGAR FOOT STRUT, Allred’s plunger-dialogue on GOOM-BYE, Scott Robinson’s soprano taragota on NEW CALL OF THE FREAKS (a whole surrealistic play in itself, with the horn section picking up their paper parts to read the unforgettable Dada poetry: “Stick out your can / here comes the garbage man. . . . “).  Kellso, once again, became the Upper West Side Louis, and Matt swung us into bliss — to say nothing of the eloquent gents of the sax section, Mister Brown to You, the reliable Hudson keeping it all together, Mark Shane pointing the way — Jess Stacy to Catherine’s Helen Ward.  The brilliant arrangements by Matt, Jon-Erik, and Andy gave us a rocking big band distilled to its essence.

The Beloved and I enjoyed every note.  We would be there tonight if we could.  If you can, stop reading this post right now and get a pair (or more) of tickets for the Saturday night shows — 7:30 or 9:30.  Or if that’s not possible, do what I did and buy Catherine’s latest CD, STRICTLY ROMANCIN’ — it has some of the same songs and almost the same band.

Miss Russell will welcome you in, too!

May your happiness increase.

BILLIE HOLIDAY, SEEN

Most photographs of Billie Holiday show her as beautiful, whether thin or overweight, dressed ornately or plainly.  Often she looks mournful.  Of course it is hard to say what her unposed expressions were like.  Did the photographer ask her to strike a pose, or to think of STRANGE FRUIT?  I prefer to recall a 1935 photograph by Timme Rosenkrantz, outside, with Ben Webster and others.  Billie wears a summer dress, looks sweetly young, glad to be alive among friends.     

Jim Eigo (of Jazz Promo Services) told me that the Beinecke Library at Yale University seems to have thrown open the doors of its photography collection online.  If you enter “jazz” or “blues” as a keyword in the search engine, riches cascade onto your monitor.  But they have the power to make me deeply uncomfortable.   

Most of the photographs were taken by Carl VanVechten, who was fascinated by jazz musicians, but primarily by women — singers (Billie, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Maxine Sullivan, Chippie Hill, Lil Green, Lizzie Miles, Gladys Bentley, Thelma Carpenter as a Seminole Indian) and dancers (Pearl Primus).  They show a good deal of dramatic planning and staging, with costumes, a formal studio, elaborate props, poses from iconic to sordid. 

Yes, there are pictures of W.C. Handy, Tiny Bradshaw, Josh White, Cab Calloway, Noble Sissle, and even Rudi Blesh . . . but Van Vechten was nearly obsessed by Ethel Waters — photographing her as Carmen; by Bessie Smith, in 1936, in a variety of poses; and perhaps most by Billie Holiday.

I can’t reproduce the photographs, although readers are allowed to view and save them.  Anything else requires the permission of the photographer’s estate and no doubt of the subject’s as well.

The color photographs of Billie, from 1949, give me pause. 

In one set, she is wearing a lavender dress with red trim, next to a vase of showy pink flowers.  In another, Van Vechten has her wearing a black velvet gown; she looks far-away and sad.  In yet another set, she is apparently naked from the waist up: her arms crossed over her breasts, anything buy happily erotic.  In the first of the series, she looks away from the camera; we see a scar on her face; her red lipstick is garish; in the next, she attempts to look casual; in the last of the series, where she is once again looking away from the camera, her face is wounded, her expression that of a soul in pain.  These three portraits are hard to look at; did the photographer sense her distress, or did she say that those three were enough, that she was no pinup girl?  They seem to me to be intrusive, near-violations, even even if Van Vechten thought he was portraying her lovingly, ceebrating her unmistakable erotic appeal.

There are many black-and-white studies, but (as if to compensate for the painful exposure) many are many of Billie with her boxer, Mister — where both she and the dog are happy, affectionate, at their ease, sharing unconditional love and tenderness.   

The Beinecke collection can be viewed here:  

http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digitallibrary/

and the Billie portraits can be accessed here: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl/oneITEM.asp?pid=2022461&iid=1091648&srchtype=

It is a record of a photographer deeply absorbed by his subjects, often revering them, sometimes exposing them for the sake of his lens.  I believe that I am glad all these photographs exist, but I am not sure.