New Mexico Jazz Festival: Catherine Russell

The New Mexico Jazz Festival begins this week, offering 16 days of concerts, photos, film, and more in both Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll focus on a few of the featured artists that will be rearranging time and space for your listening pleasure and the good of your soul. Go to New Mexico Jazz Festival for complete information on all the events.

Catherine Russell Makes the Past Present

Cat digs in.

Cat digs in.

Vocalist Catherine Russell
provides an unanswerable
counterargument to those who would claim that there’s no point in recording yet another
version of vintage-songs-that’ve-been-done-by-many: “These are great songs, and I want to sing them, too.”

You go, girl.

Because she chooses songs that speak to her, and finds a personal way to phrase each and every one of them, Russell reinvigorates material that, in the vocal cords of a lesser singer, might be mere antiques or tired reproductions. Her latest album, Strictly Romancin’ (World Village Records), features songs from the likes of Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, and Mary Lou Williams, and she and her bandmates comfortably inhabit these tunes, making them feel as present as now.

Russell brings her smooth, supple, resonant alto and fresh phrasing to a free concert this
Saturday in Albuquerque’s Old Town Plaza as part of the New Mexico Jazz Festival, where she’ll be joined by guitarist and musical director Matt Munisteri, pianist Mark Shane, bassist Lee
Hudson, and drummer Mark McLean. (Guitarist Dan Dowling and bassist John Griffin will open the afternoon’s festivities.)

From the Womb
Perhaps part of the secret of Russell’s effectiveness can be traced to her genetic heritage. Her late father’s band, the Luis Russell Orchestra, regularly backed Louis Armstrong beginning in the mid-1930s and into the 1940s.

Cat and Satchmo.

Cat and Satchmo.

Her mother, Carline Ray, is an accomplished bassist and vocalist, with advanced degrees from Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, who has performed with Mary Lou Williams and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. (At age 88, she recently released her debut album, Vocal Sides, produced by Catherine, and you can hear her on “He’s All I Need” on Strictly Romancin’.)

Exposed to classical and jazz music through her parents, Russell, a child of her times, also developed a fondness for classic rock and roll. “I grew up listening to The Band and Steely Dan as well as Louis Armstrong and all of the vintage swing era stuff. I liked everything. Good music is good music to me, it doesn’t matter what it is.”

Finding the Right Songs
Russell spent many years working as a backup vocalist for the likes of Steely Dan, Levon Helm, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Rosanne Cash, and Cyndi Lauper, among others, and singing on
commercials, but it was the music of the mid-20th century that captured her imagination as a jazz and blues vocalist.

“I love the way old recordings sound,” she says, and that’s what first attracts her to a tune. “Then, I’m drawn to the story the tune is telling.” Next, she checks out the melody, and if that catches her fancy, she looks at the harmonic structure. “I’ll say, ‘Hmm, harmonically this would be fun to play for the musicians and fun to sing with.’ ”

At bottom, though, it’s the story that keeps the song alive and timeless for Russell, that keeps her involved. “A lot of the great American songbook writers, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, all of these people wrote tunes that tell a personal story. So how can that be dated?”

Shaping the Performance
Russell shapes herself to the needs of the song. You’ll find her voice earthy, sexy, and soulful on “Romance in the Dark,” bright and sunny on “Wake Up and Live,” and wide open on
“Everybody Loves My Baby.”

You’ll also hear her adjust her phrasing from track to track. For example, her vocal rides just the tiniest bit ahead of the beat on “I’m in the Mood for Love”—a classic Armstrong technique that loosens the rhythm and pins your ears to the song.


That phrasing is no accident. “That is one thing we explore when we record,” Russell says. “How do you phrase and express the story without the rigidity [of the beat]? How did Louis do it? How did Billie do it? How did Ella do it? How do they do it?”

So she and her musicians—and a fine lot they are—consciously search for the nuances that will help them best express the sentiment of the tune organically. “We go by ‘Oh, this feels better when you do it like this,’ ” she says. “ ‘Lay this back a little bit, then you can push that a little
bit. . . .’ ”

The resulting renditions get to the heart of the songs and sound effortless doing it. Russell may have waited a long time for her career as a bandleader—she was 50 when she released Cat, her first recording—but she clearly put that time to good use.

Catherine Russell
Dan Dowling and John Griffin Open

Saturday, July 13, 1:00 p.m.
Old Town Plaza, Albuquerque


For more info, call 505-268-0044.

© 2013 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “New Mexico Jazz Festival: Catherine Russell

  1. George Langston

    This is one concert not to be missed, and it’s free! Sorry to say I’m going to miss it due to a gig that night. She is one of my all-time favorite vocalists, period. Do not miss this if at all possible. Enjoy!

    1. Mel Post author

      Hey, George, what time is your gig? Cat’s concert starts at 1:00, and I’d guess she’ll hit the stage at about 2:00. Maybe you can still make it. I’ll look for you.

      1. George Langston

        Right on – looks like I can make it after all! Thanks, Mel. Seriously, folks, Catherine Russell is one special vocalist and I can’t believe she’s going to be singing in ‘Burque!

  2. Erika Gerety-Libman

    So sad I can’t go. She is a friend of my Father’s: Peter Gerety. He really wanted me to see her, but it just didn’t work out. Say hi from Peter Gerety’s daughter for me.

  3. Dudessa

    Excellent as usual! And, I gotta say that Catherine Russell has some pipes! She is fast becoming one of my favorite singers and you , as you always do, nailed the reasons why. She sings what she feels and that is never a bad thing. If the song speaks to her, she will cover it..I can totally relate. Thank you for laying it out there so well.


    1. Mel Post author

      Thank you, D. She’s got a voice made for ears, and terrific control: breath, inflection, nuance, phrasing. Plus, her band is with her every step of the way. Should be a great afternoon of music.


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