It’s very common for today’s young jazz singers to want to sound like instruments, instrumentalists, and/or innovative vocalists. There are legions of developing singers who worship at the altars of Betty Carter, Sheila Jordan and Mark Murphy. But each of those trend-setters evolved into very personal stylists only after years of trial-and-error. Of course, young singers often want to roam the frontiers and find something that’s never been heard before. In the process, the integrity of the songs they sing (unless they write their own material) are often compromised, one way or another. Young jazzbirds wrestle with the immense legacies of the Great American Songbook and the icons who made those tunes popular, but New York City native Catherine Russell is unique in her particular scope of material.
“I just like good singing,” she says before a show in New York. “Bessie Smith, Nat Cole, Leontyne Price or Marilyn Maye—even Sam Cooke and Otis Redding–I love them all. They all excelled in their styles and their clarity of singing.”
At 61, Russell has been through the struggle of personal style and suitable material, and found her place on the wheel. She sings the songs of the classic blues queens like Bessie Smith, Ma Raney and Alberta Hunter. She’s also deep into 1930s big band jazz tunes, the wartime swing songs, and the Sinatra-Ella-Peggy jazz-and-pop cosmos of the ‘50s. That’s the musical smorgasbord she and her trio will bring to the Samueli Theatre of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on March 23.
Her singing is deceptive in the comfort of her voice and delivery: Russell is not a shouter a scat monster, or a diva. Her way with a song is easy on the ear, and she’s a warmly engaging performer. But listen closely, and an informed ear can discern her many musical elements.
She sang back-up vocals for stars like Michael Feinstein and any number of contemporary featured artists. Generationally, she should have been directed to rock or rap or what passes for today’s soul. But Catherine is the daughter of early big band leader and pianist Luis Russell and Carline Ray, the fine classical and jazz guitarist. “I grew up hearing those old tunes sung by Bessie and Rosa Henderson and Virginia Liston,” Russell states. “And I used to hear Alberta Hunter every chance I could at The Cookery. I loved the way she could sing a phrase or hold a note or raise her finger–and tell the story of the song. She modeled, for me, how to put on a show, and how to relate to an audience. I went to see her once when I hadn’t been in for a while. She looked down at me and smiled, and said, ‘We missed you.’ That tickled me.”
“I’ve had young, female singers come up to me after a show,” Russell relates, “and tell me they’ve sung the songs that they’ve heard me do, but now they’re going to go back and listen to the original versions and do more study about them. I love that.”
Her advice to young singers is simple and direct, like her own singing: “Honor the songwriter,” she admonishes. “And honor the song. Honor the structure, because if a song has lasted this long it’s got to be well-made. And be sure to honor the story that the song is telling. Those stories tell us so much about who we are.” Sharp-eared developing singers can learn a lot by listening to Catherine Russell.
Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on rock, jazz and culture.
Catherine Russell | Samueli Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts | March 23, 7 & 9 pm