I don’t know how the singer and ebullient force of nature Catherine Russell would do in combat against Lex Luthor or a fleet of intergalactic starships. But I do know that she is the sworn enemy of Gloom and Dullness, a tireless fighter for Joy and Swing.
She proved this again last night at Symphony Space in a concert sponsored by the Sidney Bechet Society. With her were some of her usual comrades-in-arms: Matt Munisteri (guitar and musical director); Mark Shane (piano); Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet); Dan Block (clarinet and tenor); Lee Hudson (string bass); Rocky Bryant (drums).
Catherine is not only a splendid singer, with an unerring internal pulse and gift for melodic invention; she moves easily through a variety of moods in the course of an evening. In addition, she is a happy embodiment of living swing: flashing a gleaming smile, joking with the audience, and dancing all over the stage.
She truly has a good time, and it never seems artificial.
Rather, she is delighted to be there to make music for us and her pleasure comes through, whether she is picking just the right tempo for a bluesy slow drag or spontaneously interacting with an audience member.
After an instrumental exploration of BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME, Catherine came on to offer a varied program. A special pleasure was observing a mature artist who has fully internalized a variety of influences — from the fierce women blues singers to Motown queens, from the dancers at the Savoy Ballroom to gospel choirs, all these influences seamless and fully developed within her own personal style. Listening to Catherine, one never feels, “Now she’s becoming this performer or this one; now she’s acting out that recorded / seen performance.” No, the result is fully in blossom — homage to the great influences before her but also singularly her own.
When she approached an early-Twenties blues, SHAKE THAT THING, it owned property in several universes — not only the kind of music one would grind to in 1923 Chicago but a sultry call-to-shake entirely appropriate ninety years later. Her other blues performances — one about financial distress (the concert was, after all, held on April 15), her own evocation of Esther Phillips’ AGED AND MELLOW, and Dinah Washington’s ominious MY MAN’S AN UNDERTAKER — were just as dramatically compelling. She wooed us with AFTER THE LIGHTS GO DOWN LOW and then hilariously dismissed us with I’M CHECKIN’ OUT, GOOM-BYE. Other classics that Catherine has made her own — an encore of KITCHEN MAN, WE THE PEOPLE, standards SOME OF THESE DAYS and DARKTOWN STRUTTERS’ BALL — had their own joyous light. In twenty songs, she turned herself and her personality to the light as many ways, but each time we recognized her essence: soulful, experienced, thoughtful, deeply feeling and deeply amused.
And for the immediate future . . .
Catherine will be appearing with Mark Shane, Matt Munisteri, Lee Hudson, and Mark McLean at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (Jazz at Lincoln Center) for four nights — Thursday, April 25, through Sunday, April 28 — with shows as 7:30 and 9:30 PM.
Come and be amazed by Catherine Russell, performing superhuman feats of humanity, humor, creativity, and swing, as if they were easy to do — which for her, they are.
May your happiness increase.