Story and interview by J Hunter
It’s way too simplistic to say Catherine Russell was “born to be a musician,” but if you believe in Nature versus Nurture (or, in this case, Nature AND Nurture), the conditions sure were there. The sultry vocalist’s late father Luis Russell was a pianist, a bandleader and a longtime cohort of the one and only Louis Armstrong. Her mother Carline Ray played bass and guitar in the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-women band in the United States, and has worked with the legendary vocalist Mary Lou Williams.
For her part, Russell is a graduate with honors from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (where she studied acting and movement) and has provided back-up vocals for Steely Dan (she was with them last summer at Tanglewood), David Bowie and Paul Simon before she started making music of her own. “Strictly Romancin'” – her fourth solo release for the World Village/Harmonia Mundi label – dropped (prophetically enough) on Valentine’s Day.
She returns to MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center in North Adams at 8pm on Saturday, and she was good enough to take time out to talk to Nippertown:
Q: With parents like Carline Ray and Luis Russell, is it too easy to assume that you listened to nothing but jazz growing up?
A: I was raised on all types of music, including opera, American Songbook, all periods of classical music and different periods of jazz. I also listened to rock, soul and blues.
Q: What’s the one thing you miss the most about singing back-up, and what’s the one thing you miss the least?
A: I am still a freelance back-up singer on the stage, on television and on recordings. The thing I would say I “miss” would be vocal harmony – I love to harmonize. That’s probably it.
Q: When I was burning “Strictly Romancin'” to my iPod, iTunes insisted that the music on this disc is “Pop.” But listening to it the first time, this is really a “pop album” from the days when Ella Fitzgerald was considered “pop”, isn’t it?
A: Yes, it would seem so. It used to confuse me when I would be searching for albums in record stores in this country. Classic vocalists like Ella and Frank Sinatra were in the ‘pop’ section, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington would be in the jazz section.
Q: The ensemble that backs you on “Romancin'” is tight as a drum. Are we going to see this band when you play Saturday night?
A: You will see three members of the band: Matt Munisteri on guitar and banjo; Mark Shane on piano; and Lee Hudson on acoustic bass. And thank you for the compliment. I’m blessed to work with excellent musicians!
Q: The whole date sounds like it should be listened to (and performed in) some smokey basement jazz club. Was that the concept from the jump, or is that just how it developed?
A: That’s an interesting question. I like music that swings. I always picture people dancing, even if there is no dance floor. So that might be the “concept.” The musicians I work with help me to realize that vision. We record everything all together, so it feels like a band. I do imagine those smokey night clubs long ago… Now you’ve got me daydreaming about that! (Laughs)
Q: “Satchel Mouth Baby” was written by Mary Lou Williams, who your mom played with. Is this a song from your childhood, or something you came to as an adult?
A: In 2010, I was invited to perform at the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival in Washington, DC. I was sent several tunes of Ms. Williams so I could pick a few to include in my show. Nat King Cole’s version of “Satchel Mouth Baby” made me smile, and I decided to sing it with Matt Munisteri.
Q: My favorite track has to be your take on Ellington and Strayhorn’s “I’m Checkin’ Out, Goom’bye” – not just because it’s a great treatment, but because of your hilarious “duet” with trombonist John Allred. Was your interaction with Allred charted, or did it just happen that way in the studio?
A: First of all, I LOVE John Allred! The whole interaction came together in the studio, and everybody was laughing! That was so much fun!
Q: You’ve played major festivals like North Sea and Montreal, but you’ve also played small clubs like Scullers in Boston and Yoshi’s in the Bay Area. If you had to choose, which size venue do you like the most, and why?
A: First, I have to say that performing in a venue full of people that have come to see us is always fun, no matter what the size. But you can’t beat the intimacy of a small club. The artist gets to know the audience during the course of a show, and vice versa.
Catherine Russell and her band step into the spotlight at MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center in North Adams at 8pm on Saturday (February 18) celebrating the release of “Strictly Romancin’.” Tix are $18 in advance; $22 at the door; students $10.