A song for today

Red Sea Jazz Festival artistic director and saxophonist Eli Degibri will front his own big band. (photo credit: HAGGAI COHEN MILO)
Red Sea Jazz Festival artistic director and saxophonist Eli Degibri will front his own big band.
(photo credit: HAGGAI COHEN MILO)
If you are going to play or sing jazz, it helps to have some knowledge of the backdrop to the art form – or better still, a practical handle on the creative forebears. That puts you right in the thick of the emotional and historical ethos.
Catherine Russell has that in spades.
Russell is one of the offshore stars on the roster of this year’s Red Sea Jazz Festival, which will take place at the Port of Eilat August 27 to 30. She will appear with her quartet of guitarist Matt Munisteri, pianist Mark Shane, and Israeli bassist Tal Ronen, with whom Russell has been working for more than four years.
Other stellar imports to the seaside jazz-based bash include trumpeters Christian Scott and Josh Evans; drummer Brian Blade; pianist Johnny O’Neal; Spanish jazz-flamenco pianist Chano Dominguez; reedman Wayne Escoffrey; and a frequent visitor to these shores, pianist Aaron Goldberg. Escoffrey will team up with long-time Big Apple resident, Israeli guitarist Avi Rothbard, while another States-based expat, flutist Hadar Noiberg, will join forces with ethnically inclined percussionist Oded Alony, whose various vehicles of creative expression include gypsy troupe Marsh Dondurma.
The local jazz lineup features artistic director saxophonist Eli Degibri, who will front his own big band, and host three pop divas – Dikla, Marina Maximillian and Miri Mesika, a threesome led by drummer Noam David. There will also be a couple of sextets, one led by veteran saxophonist Erez Bar Noi, with the accomplished Hagiga group, which recently performed at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, also in the Eilat fray.
As usual, there is a flurry of “jazz and beyond” acts in the program, such as American guitarist Al McKay with his Earth Wind & Fire Experience tribute to the US band that made it big in the 1970s with its high-octane cocktail of funk, R&B, soul, pop, rock, jazz and disco. McKay was a founding member of Earth Wind & Fire, and the festival opening day show should get the Eilat audience arockin’ and areelin’ plenty.
Other extracurricular slots include ethnic pop-rock vocalist Kobi Oz, raconteur/comedian Dori Ben Zeev, and Brazilian guitarist Yamandu Costa. Israeli pianist Ofer Portugaly will perform with veteran pop singer Leah Shabbat, vocalist-percussionist Doron Talmon – better known as a member of indie-folk-country threesome Jane Bordeaux – and Mizrahi singer Sagiv Cohen and rock guitarist-vocalist Alon Eder.
THERE WAS never much doubt about Russell’s eventual career path. The 60-year-old New York-based singer was born into a musical family and got a varied and heaping helping of music in her formative years.
“Both my parents were pioneers in the [music] business,” she notes. “My dad came over to America from Panama when he was a teenager. He’d already been playing piano for silent pictures in Panama. He got a chance to come to New Orleans, where it was all happening.
That was his dream come true. That was in the 1920s.” They were halcyon jazzy times.
“He met Louis Armstrong and all that crew,” Russell continues. “They were all working in the honky-tonks (bars). They all went to Chicago to record, because there wasn’t really any recording going on in New Orleans, and then to New York. Everyone in jazz did that. That was a natural progression.”
The artistic genetic line goes even deeper. All four of Russell’s grandparents were also steeped in the discipline, while her pianist mother attended prestigious New York bastion of classical music education Juilliard – as did Russell’s maternal grandfather. Classical training notwithstanding, Russell’s parents opted for jazz and her mother was a member of the highly popular International Sweethearts of Rhythm – America’s first ethnically integrated all-female musical troupe – which hit the big time during World War II.
“That was when many of the male musicians were away in the war,” says Russell. “When they came back the women musicians were forgotten again.
They basically went back into the kitchen.”
With all that baggage, it is no surprise that Russell’s first steps in the sonic arts dipped into all kinds of domains. But that was also very much down to the encouraging political climate of the day.
“Music was part of the educational system when I was growing up. It’s not that way anymore. I kind of started, musically, in gospel because I enjoyed the gospel choir singing when I was in college. I was also in a kind of country string band. I was living in Northern California at the time, and we used to do small gigs. Northern California then was very much small town life – not like it is today – you know, the capital of the wine industry.”
Russell got herself a well-rounded street-level musical education over the years.
“I didn’t really get into jazz until about 20 years ago,” she remarks.
“I went to acting school in New York and I worked as a session singer and any gig I could get – you know, to make music my life and pay the bills. I also did things like private parties just to gain repertoire and experience.”
Singing jingles on commercials also helped to spread the professional learning net, as well as keeping the wolves far away from the singer’s door.
She broadened her experience further by working with some of the biggest guns on the global pop and rock scene, such as Diana Ross, Steely Dan and David Bowie.
After touring the world and winning a Grammy as a featured artist, Russell felt it was time she did her own thing.
“When I came back from touring with David Bowie, making my own album was basically the only thing I hadn’t done up to that point,” she says. That finally happened at the relatively mature age of 50. Russell doesn’t regret her late start to putting her own stuff out there and says she brought a wealth of savoir-faire to her new professional avenue, even if she wasn’t enamored with the whole package.
“At that point I didn’t want to be a band leader. But it has turned out well because, at least, I knew about the road from watching other people do it all these years. So I used all those skills for myself. It’s worked out.”
Russell has certainly made up for lost time, putting out six albums in the last 10 years. She was also fortunate enough to catch the live acts of some of the vocal greats, including Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln.
“I learned a lot about how to sing on a stage from watching them,” she says.
She weaves some of the tricks she has picked up along the way into her professional life, even some of the seemingly incongruous stuff.
“Everything informs everything else,” she notes sagely.
“I definitely use all of those things, because we do a mixture of jazz and blues. All of my vocal skills come into play differently, depending what song I’m singing, depending on what story I’m telling, depending on the era of the song – whether it’s a 1920s song or something from the 1950s. All of those things feed into my choices.”
Over the years, Russell has made a point of reviving some forgotten jazz and blues nuggets.
She takes something of a Zen-like approach to her personal and professional continuum. “It’s never too late to restart and to reinvent yourself,” she declares.
Russell is clearly doing a good job with her here-andnow artistic enterprise.
For tickets and more information: www.redseajazz.co.il