Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
“I like old songs… the older, the better,” Catherine Russell informed the full-to-the-back First Unitarian Society Whisperdome in Schenectady, her voice deep and firm. Then she asked us, “What was 60 years ago?” When someone in the crowd came up with 1953, she immediately said, “That’s too soon!” Later in the evening, she told us as an aside, “Vinyl! That’s even better!”
None of this should have been a surprise to us, considering Russell started her first set with Ethel Waters’ “Shake That Thing” and followed her chronological statement with Hoagy Carmichael’s “Ev’ntide.” Russell’s stage attire was as Old School as it gets: Hair done up tight and to a fare-thee-well, black spangly top, black skirt, black hose, black high heels – a far cry from the cornrows and shoulder ‘tats displayed on the CD booklet for her last disc Strictly Romancin’, or the Occupy Wall Street headband she wore for her 2010 release Inside This Heart of Mine. If the trend continues, she’ll be in all-urban cammo for her upcoming disc Bringin’ It Back. The title comes from a Wynonie Harris tune she did in the second set, which was every bit as fun as the first. The song did come from the ’50s, but Russell wasn’t holding that against it.
Russell’s look for the evening may have been jazz, and the vibe set by her drum-free trio wasn’t much hotter than the coolness Jeff Hamilton laid down at APFJ a few weeks before, but Russell’s vocal attack is closer to Ruth Brown than Billie Holiday. Someone sitting behind me said she thought of Russell more as a blues singer, and there was a definite flavor of Okeh Records shouters like Annie Laurie and Big Maybelle in Russell’s presence and material, which included off-hand party tunes like Ira Cox’s “Be a Rug Cutter,” Dinah Washington’s “My Man’s an Undertaker” and the Ellington/Strayhorn hoot “I’m Checkin’ Out, Goom’bye.” But that diminishes Russell’s ability to shape a vocal to her exacting specifications, which she did splendidly on Esther Phillips’ “Aged and Mellow” and Ella Fitzgerald’s “Under the Spell of the Blues.” The pieces were so intimate, but the commitment Russell brought to every one of them was absolutely towering.
Everything Russell touched was enhanced by a back-up band that was tighter than 787 at rush hour. Guitarist/musical director Matt Munisteri was last seen in these parts helping Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra blow up Lake George with Bernstein’s wild tribute to Sly Stone; for this show, Munisteri replaced the mad fuzz tone with a classic hollow-body sound that brought a hop, skip and snap to the evening. There was a palpable sass to both his solos and support, and both he and Russell approached their deadpan duet of “Satchel Mouth Baby” with equal relish. Munisteri also teamed up with pianist Mark Shane and bassist Lee Hudson to hit “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” right out of the park. (“They swing so nice, don’t they?,” a grinning Russell asked us after the tune.)
Maybe Russell is closer to the blues than she is to jazz. But so what? Jazz CAME from the blues! Check out the music of Fats Waller, whose songbook Russell returned to on several occasions. It’s not the blues, but it’s the blues’ whimsical next-door neighbor with a piano and some attitude. And there was a fair bit of whimsy in everything this group did, because Russell and her partners – individually and collectively – were having big fun making these legendary tunes as vibrant as they were when they first came out of the box. That sense of fun made everything Russell touched just a little bit better, and made this one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve had all year.