(NORTH ADAMS, Mass.) – It was totally appropriate that Catherine Russell, who performs at MASS MoCA on Saturday, February 18, at 8 pm in the Hunter Center, released her brand-new album, Strictly Romancin’ (World Village), this past Tuesday – February 14 aka Valentine’s Day – as it’s an album full of romance and heartbreak.
But Russell’s is no mere tribute album to the romantic side of the so-called Great American Songbook. As soon as Russell opens her mouth and sings, a listener can hear the profound depths of her connection to the music – the spirit of gospel, the longing of spirituals, the ache of blues, the swing of jazz, and the color of brilliant singing.
Russell was to the manor born – her father, the late Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong’s long-time musical director, and her mother, Carline Ray, is a bassist, guitarist, vocalist, who has performed with Mary Lou Williams and International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and who holds degrees from both Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music.
Hailed for her timeless jazz croon, Russell is known for rediscovering and reinterpreting jazz classics, as well as delivering what are destined to become classics. And Strictly Romancin’ pays tribute to many of those influences, including to her father through songs associated with Armstrong and her mother via a Mary Lou Williams number.
Growing up in New York, Russell’s mother exposed her to musical greats such as Alberta Hunter and Leontyne Price in concert. Beginning her own musical career singing the blues in New York Jazz clubs, Russell went on to sing backup for artists such as Al Green, Paul Simon, Rosanne Cash, Isaac Hayes, Steely Dan, Jackson Browne and David Bowie.
After decades as a powerful back-up singer, Russell went solo, and has since released four full-length albums. Her debut, Cat, was selected as one of NPR’s top 5 Jazz Albums of 2006, and both Sentimental Streak and This Heart of Mine climbed the JazzWeek and Billboard’s Jazz Charts. Russell has performed at festivals across the globe including Tanglewood Jazz, Bern International Jazz, Chicago Blues, and Panama Jazz. She appeared at MASS MoCA in 2007 to a sold out show in Club B-10.
As a soloist, Russell digs into the history of jazz and blues, including interpretations of iconic songs from 1920s, the post World War II era, and present-day favorites. Not only an expert vocalist, Russell, like her mother, is a multi-instrumentalist, performing on keyboard, guitar, mandolin and percussion.
Strictly Romancin’ is a paean to natural attractions; to a lover, an art form, and to one’s family heritage. On the album, Catherine explores love’s foibles, failures, and bliss, from amorous to humorous, embodying the lost art of song savvy, inhabiting the lyric, and allowing each melody to shine. On this 14-song collection, Russell takes the listener on a journey from Harlem dance hall, to Parisian Café, to Store Front Church, to New Orleans Gin Joint, to Uptown Cabaret, blurring distinctions between the carnal and the eternal, in a musical tour de force.
Strictly Romancin’ reunites Russell with the team from her previous chart topping album, Inside This Heart of Mine, including recording engineer Katherine Miller, producer Paul Kahn, and musical director, guitarist, banjoist and arranger Matt Munisteri, who contributes his expansive vision.
Also returning are New York City-based players including trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, trombonist John Allred, saxophone/clarinetist Dan Block, this time joined by veteran saxophonist/arranger Andy Farber. Joe Barbato on accordion and Aaron Weinstein on violin add a gypsy flavor on two tracks. The rhythm section includes players from Catherine Russell’s road-tested band, including stride and swing connoisseur Mark Shane on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, and Mark McClean on drums.
The album opens with “Under The Spell of The Blues,” a newly minted version borrowed from the original Chick Webb / Ella Fitzgerald recording. Alone with heartache at the dawn, Catherine sets a mournful tone with her mesmerizing lament.
The classic Dorothy Fields – Jimmy McHugh composition, “I’m In The Mood For Love,” was plucked from the fruitful recording collaboration of Louis Armstrong and Luis Russell. “Everything’s Been Done Before,” from the same source, is an unusual melody. Both are impeccably rendered by Russell’s lush croon.
“Ev’ntide” comes from the same rich period in 1936 when Louis Armstrong was churning out masterpieces for the Decca label, this one written by Hoagy Carmichael, and rarely recorded since. The sensuous slow dance of “Romance In The Dark”, written by the great Lil Green (who coincidentally toured as featured vocalist with the Luis Russell Orchestra in the mid-1940s), dazzles the senses.
The Ellington-Strayhorn spin on breaking up, “I’m Checkin’ Out Goom’bye,” becomes a hilarious conversation between Russell and trombonist John Allred, aided and abetted by a jet propelled Matt Munisteri arrangement. “No More” is serious soul cleansing, Russell’s homage to the late Abbey Lincoln, found on Abbey’s very first studio album.
“Satchel Mouth Baby” is a fun and bouncy infatuation written by Mary Lou Williams (a nod to Louis Armstrong). Russell first performed this at the Kennedy Center’s Women in Jazz Festival in 2010, and it’s highlighted her repertoire ever since; fitting, as Cat’s mom worked with Mary Lou Williams and her dad with Satchel Mouth.
Russell implores “Don’t Leave Me”, a tune written and first performed by blues singer/pianist Ivory Joe Hunter, whose signature style is expertly channeled by pianist Mark Shane. “I Haven’t Changed A Thing”, once recorded by the hit-maker Kay Starr for Capitol Records, and mysteriously unissued, allows Russell to reassert loyalty and devotion, while unearthing another gem.
“He’s All I Need”, was written and originally recorded by gospel-cum early rocker Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and her singing partner of many years, the late Sister Marie Knight. The duet is now reimagined by Catherine and her mother Carline Ray (who turned 86 just prior to this recording.)
And who better than Catherine Russell to jump start the spirit of Swing Era giants like Cab Calloway (“Wake Up and Live”) and Henry “Red” Allen (“Whatchya Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Swing?”).
Tickets are $18 in advance, $22 day of show, and $10 for students. MASS MoCA members receive a 10% discount. Tickets are available through the MASS MoCA box office located off Marshall Street in North Adams, open from 11 – 5, closed Tuesdays. Tickets can also be charged by phone by calling 413.662.2111 during box office hours or purchased online at MASS MoCA.