A FEW (MORE) MINUTES WITH… Catherine Russell

September 3rd, 2014, 4:00 pm by Greg
Catherine Russell and Matt Munisteri

Catherine Russell and Matt Munisteri

Interview and story by J Hunter
Photograph by Rudy Lu

Earworms. You hate ‘em, right? I mean, a song that crawls inside your head and refuses to leave – particularly a song you didn’t like in the first place – is right up there with nails on a blackboard and reruns of “Full House.” When I have an earworm, I want to crawl inside my head with a claw hammer, track that sucker down, and beat on it until it’s a cerebral grease spot. Imagine a mash-up of “Fantastic Voyage” and “Reservoir Dogs.” You get the idea.

But last fall, there was one earworm I didn’t try to kill; in fact, I tried to feed it and care for it, so it wouldn’t go away. It came courtesy of esteemed jazz vocalist Catherine Russell and her guitarist/musical director Matt Munisteri. During Russell’s enchanting performance at A Place For Jazz in Schenectady, she and Munisteri did an elegant duet version of Mary Lou Williams’ “Satchel Mouth Baby” that set up shop in my brain and did business for nearly a month! There were other great moments in that show, and I wrote about as many as I could, but that’s the one that stuck with me, and I was more than good with that.

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A few months after that show, Jazz Village released Russell’s latest recording Bring It Back… and, theoretically, I shouldn’t have gone near it. I mean, I’m the “Jazz2K” guy, and Bring It Back is a pretty darn faithful set of standards that are 50 years old or older – oil and water, right? Very, very wrong! Between Russell’s electric vocals, the date’s stellar arrangements (by Munisteri and others), and razor-sharp performances by a group of musicians that make Old School big-band music a living and breathing thing, every song literally jumps out and demands your attention – from ballads like Duke Ellington’s “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” and Johnny Otis’ “Aged and Mellow” to big blues shouters like “I’m Stickin’ With You Baby” and Harrison Nelson’s casually strutting title track.

This magnetic second-generation performer (who, by the way, can win Six Degrees of Louis Armstrong in two moves) comes back to Greater Nippertown Saturday (September 6), performing at the latest edition of the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival at Jennings Landing. I’ve already had the pleasure of interviewing Russell, but with her impending return, I went back for a second helping, and she was gracious enough to give me a few more minutes of her time:

Q: You played the Whisperdome in Schenectady last November, which is a unique space to say the least. I know it’s almost 10 months back, but do you have any memories of that gig?

A: I didn’t know what to expect, that’s often the case. But the show was lots of fun because the audience came out to have a good time with us! I felt right at home. We were also treated really well there, so that always puts musicians in a good frame of mind for the show!

Q: Looking over my review of that show, it hits me that I had more fun that night than I had at any other concert that year. Do you and your band have as much fun as the audience during the course of a gig?

A: Thank you! Yes! We love working together, and look forward to it because we know it will be fun. That’s the beauty of it.

Q: Your music is unquestionably jazz, but I (and other people I’ve spoken with) hear a big helping of the blues in your vocals. Did singers like Ruth Brown, Annie Laurie and Big Maybelle have any influence in your development as a vocalist?

A: Ruth Brown certainly did! My mother Carline Ray played bass with Ms. Brown for several years in the 1980s, so I got to attend many of her shows. I love the way she mixed standards and blues seamlessly, that’s why she was the Queen of Rhythm & Blues. Alberta Hunter was also a big influence on me, having seen her perform at the Cookery in New York. I’ve always loved Big Maybelle’s voice too, as well as Big Mama Thornton, but that’s quite a different thing.

Q: You said something really interesting during that show at the Whisperdome: “We never get far away from Louis (Armstrong).” Is that just personal preference, because his material is so rich, or is it because – in the opinion of many – if you’re going to play jazz, you have to start with Armstrong, because he’s one of the genre’s major pillars?

A: You know, “Jazz” is such a big word these days, because it’s been around 100-plus years now. So whatever a person’s influence is, as far as jazz, is up to them. I just happen to love Louis Armstrong, and I relate to the swing of his music and his honesty instrumentally and vocally. He made everything sound better, and brought all the musicians who played with him up to another level. His music makes me happy, and it always sounds fresh. His life and musical influences are in everything he played.

Q: You also played a bunch of tunes from “Bring It Back,” which is still getting big airplay almost seven months after its release. When you were recording that date, did you have any sense that “Bring it Back” was going to be really special?

A: Thank you for the compliment! I choose songs I like, and I’m happy when other people like them, too! I don’t ever know what’s going to happen, and I don’t focus on that. I just want to have fun recording and performing, and continue to work with the best musicians.

Q: How do you choose your material, and how much of a role does your musical director Matt Munisteri have in the process? Also, getting back to the subject of fun, how much does that quality factor into your choices? You’ve done several tunes by Fats Waller (who’s one of the best, funniest lyricists ever), and “Bring It Back” has tunes like “Darktown Strutters Ball” and “You Got to Swing and Sway” – both of which will have you smiling before you realize it.

A: Thanks again! The element of fun is always a factor in choosing material. I might put an album on, say, after dinner while I’m washing dishes. I listen to a bunch of tunes. Then there’ll be one that will grab my attention, and I’ll have to listen to it again and again. Then I’ll learn it and write out the music and bring it to the band. We try it and see if it works in the show or not. Not everything works, and that’s okay. Matt Munisteri has suggested tunes, as has my pianist Mark Shane. They always look out for tunes for me.

I like a good lyric first, because the story has to be personal and universal. Next, I want a good melody, and I imagine if the tune will be fun for musicians to play. And nowadays, since I have people that write horn arrangements for us, we decide if certain tunes should be for a small group, or if they should have horns. “Swing and Sway” is great with three horns, and Matt Munisteri brought us the arrangement idea for “Darktown.” (I got to play some percussion on that tune in the studio!)

Q: In addition to being a terrific guitarist, Matt also arranges your material. However, you did the horn arrangements for the recording of Johnny Otis’ “Aged and Mellow.” How did that come about?

A: Matt IS such a wonderful guitarist, and he does many great arrangements for us! The horns on “Aged and Mellow” were arranged as we were recording it in the studio. I just heard a very simple horn harmony to my melody and I gave each horn player his notes, and asked them to play in the last part of the tune. I love harmonizing with horns!

Q: Another tune you do on “Bring It Back” is “Lucille,” written by your father Luis Russell. There’s a great story behind that tune, which you told us at the Whisperdome. Can I get you to repeat it here?

A: Yes! We visited the Louis Armstrong Archive at Queens College a while back. Archivist Ricky Riccardi wanted us to identify the personnel on a demo that he had found in Louis Armstrong’s collection. The vocalist on this demo of three songs was my mother, Carline Ray, accompanied by organist (and fellow Panamanian) Frank Anderson. We heard “Lucille” and liked it immediately, so I tried it out with my band and they liked it, too. We asked tenor saxophonist and arranger Andy Farber to write a horn arrangement, and that’s what you hear on our recording! I’m happy to say that people really respond to the tune!

Q: Last year, I had the good fortune of visiting the Louis Armstrong Museum in Queens. The museum is located in the house Louis & Lucille lived in until Armstrong died. Did you ever get to visit that house growing up, and have you been back to it lately?

A: Yes! I was very young when I visited their house with my parents, but I remember that time clearly! My parents were invited to a party and brought me along. I remember being the only little kid there, and at one point Louis Armstrong picks me up in his arms. I think my Dad was operating the home-movie camera and captured that moment. I just remember the large mouth of Louis Armstrong, laughing. He was in a happy mood that night, and I was a shy kid, so I was a bit frightened at that point by his larger-than-life presence! But it was a beautiful home, and they loved to entertain. Lots of laughing and eating!

We have visited the House Museum, and it was interesting and a bit surreal to be back there! I’m so glad the House has been preserved for us and for future generations. It’s so important!

Q: Most of “Bring It Back” was recorded with a large band, and yet the intimacy you and your trio create in concert is absolutely divine. Has doing a recording with just “you and the boys” – no horns, no strings – ever been discussed?

A: Well, thanks again for your kind words! I kinda like the variety of different instrumentation for different tunes, different moods and so forth. But I’ll certainly think about that for the future. I love the musicians I work with, so that would be fun to explore, too!

Catherine Russell and her band – guitarist Mark Munisteri, pianist Mark Shane, bassist Tal Ronen and drummer Mark McLean – are slated to perform at the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival at 5:15pm Saturday (September 6) at Jennings Landing in Albany. The one-day fest also features performances by Maria Zemantauski, Michael Benedict Jazz Vibes, Professor Cunningham & His Old School and the Jack DeJohnette Trio. Admission is FREE. GO HERE for more info and the complete schedule of performances…

LIVE: Catherine Russell @ A Place For Jazz, 11/1/13
A Few Minutes With… Catherine Russell