Mining jazz’s oldest streams

Jazz singer Catherine Russell is deeply rooted in the dynamic art form.

Catherine Russell (photo credit: Courtesy)
Catherine Russell
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Catherine Russell certainly knows from whom to gather her spiritual and creative energy. The 57-year-old American jazz singer, who will appear all over the country between March 8 and 15 as part of this year’s Hot Jazz series, cites some of the most celebrated divas of the art form as her sources of inspiration. Vocalist Abbey Lincoln, the possessor of one of the most emotive and evocative voices in jazz history, is high on Russell’s list of influences, and there is a Lincolnesque lilt to Russell’s delivery.
“I loved Abbey Lincoln, and I got to hear her a few times,” says Russell. “She was really unique. It is a big compliment to be compared with her.”
The truth is, however, that Russell had plenty of inspiration much closer to home. Her father, Luis Russell, was the musical director for iconic trumpeter-vocalist and band leader Louis Armstrong; and her mother, Carline Ray, held degrees from both Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music and performed with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first racially integrated all-female jazz outfit, during World War II.
“My parents were pioneers in their fields,” says Russell. “My dad was right at the beginnings of New Orleans jazz and the blues. I was listening to his music when I was three years old. My mother heard all those great early musicians in Harlem. She met [legendary singer] Billie Holiday, and she took me to see [blues singer] Alberta Hunter perform. I heard everyone from [modern jazz pioneer pianist] Thelonious Monk to [maverick saxophonist] Rahsaan Roland Kirk and [singer] Betty Carter – everybody.”
Ivie Anderson and pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams are also important role models for Russell.
Like any art form, jazz is an evolving discipline, but the leading proponents all talk about the need to be connected to the roots of the music in order to take it forward to the next stage. Russell appears to have a direct link to those roots. But Russell’s parents were happy to allow their daughter to get into contemporary and other sounds, too.
“I was never limited to one thing or another,” she says. “My dad passed away when I was quite young, but my mother let me listen to everything – rock ‘n’ roll and blues, and we listened to opera. We used to go the opera, and there was all kinds of classical music. I was exposed to everything, and I feed off everything I have ever heard.”
That provides Russell with a generous substratum for conveying her personal and artistic message.
“It helps me tell the story of the songs without feeling limited,” she says, “without feeling that I have to sound like this or that. I get to just express the tune at any particular moment. I work off the great musicians I have with me on the stage and just let that carry me.”
Having such an eclectic musical education has also helped Russell spread her talents across a very wide spectrum of artistic ventures. In addition to her own jazz work, which includes five CDs as leader, her CV also features stints with such pop and rock icons as David Bowie, Steely Dan, Jackson Browne and Paul Simon.
“I got to go on two tours with David Bowie and be in his band for two years,” explains Russell. “I was a big Bowie fan from the early 1970s. He’s a great writer and I always loved his voice, so when I got the opportunity to join his band in 2002 – I couldn’t believe it was happening – I dropped everything and joined him. I said, ‘Yeah, I think I have to do this.’”
In fact, Russell brought more than just her vocal prowess to the Bowie act.
“The great thing about being with Bowie was that he also allowed me to play instruments in the shows,” she recounts. “I got to play keyboards and guitars, mandolin and percussion. He let me express myself instrumentally as well. That was just great.”
Having all those instrumental skills at her disposal not only enabled Russell to play a more significant role in Bowie’s shows, but it also gives a more intimate understanding of what goes into making a jazz gig sound right.
“It allows me to listen to my sidemen and to learn from them because they teach me all the time what, for example, the tenor saxophone plays as opposed to what the alto sax plays and what the clarinet and trumpet play, and I get all these different sensibilities.” she says. “And it also allows me to feel like my voice is an instrument as opposed to being something separate from the instrumentalists. I always feel, and try to sing, like I’m a part of the ensemble.”
Russell’s learning curve just goes on, and she feels she has come a long way since her debut album, Cat, which was released eight years ago.
“It has been a real journey, really focusing on how I want the music to sound. I learned this from a musician friend of mine. He told me that when you make your first album, you are actually learning how to make an album. I love Cats and how it came out, and I also hear that I was really trying to find my voice and my way through it,” she explains.
For Russell, finding her own voice also means feeding off her influences that come from the earliest forms of jazz and later musical forms.
“Since Cats, I have been looking to move toward what I love, which is the Swing era and primarily music from the 1930s and ‘40s and the blues of the 1920s but also rhythm and blues of the 1940s and ‘50s.”
All of that is present in Russell’s latest release, Bring It Back. She will perform numbers from it at her shows here, along with some standards.
“Since Cat, I have met more musicians, more like-minded musicians, who love playing the traditional styles,” she says. “I have expanded my musical friends and my musical world.”
Catherine Russell will perform with Israeli sextet The New Orleans Function Jazz Band on March 8 in Ganei Tikva; on March 11 at the Zappa Club in Herzliya, on March 12 at Einan Hall in Modi’in; on March 13 & 14 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art; and on March 15 at Abba Hushi House in Haifa.