december 2011

Catherine Russell: delivering abundant, delectable romancin’ with an Ella-like sophistication and clarity

A Tug On The Heartstrings

By David McGee

Catherine Russell
World Village/Harmonia Mundi

Scheduled for release on February 14, Strictly Romancin’, Catherine Russell’s fourth album, would certainly make a most fetching Valentine’s Day gift for a special someone. Offering sly, sensuous looks of love courtesy songs from Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh, Hoagy Carmichael, Lil Green, Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams, Irving Mills and others, Ms. Russell shows off the impeccable phrasing, savvy rhythmic sense and expressive soulfulness that has earned her the praise of top jazz critics worldwide along with a growing audience appreciative of the Ella-like sophistication and clarity of her attack as well as the personal stamp she puts on material from varied 20th and 21st Century sources (including her original tune “Luci," a chilling standout cut on 2008’s Sentimental Streak).

Catherine Russell performs Bessie Smith’s ‘Kitchen Man,’ from her 2008 album Sentimental Streak, at Joe’s Pub, with Mike Munisteri on guitar, Howard Johnson on tuba, Mark Shane on piano, February 27, 2008. Video by Anthony Pepitone.

To be clear, Ms. Russell isn’t romancin’ in the strictest sense: Ellington-Strayhorn’s “I’m Checkin’ Out, Goom ‘bye” has got that swing that means a thing, a spunky horn chart with a nice, moaning trombone solo by John Allred, plus Mark Shane’s lively piano, but our gal’s struttin’ vocal is a kissoff note to a bum who left her for another gal. In a moment of dark despair, “No More” (by Salvador Camarata-Sidney Keith Russell), Ms. Russell rises from the depths of heartbreak to muster a triumphant retort to a faithless beau, assuring him of saving the love he threw away for someone who’ll do right by it and her. One of the album’s most affecting moments is the broken-hearted melody of Ivory Joe Hunter’s grinding blues, “Don’t Leave Me,” dark and aching, with a pungent top-strings guitar solo by Mike Munisteri ladling on a bit more sorrow after the singer has revealed the full extent of her wounds (Ms. Russell’s voice even cracks at one point in her tear-stained pleading).“He’s All I Need” is indeed a love song, but it’s about love of the Lord--a powerhouse gospel number, it was penned by the awesome tandem of Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight, and brings out the testifying best in Ms. Russell’s bright alto, with her mom, the heavier-voiced Carline Ray, singing responsively, adding an extra measure of gravitas in bolstering the bottom when her daughter soars aloft in the choruses, their sole support being Mark Shane’s sturdy, solemn church piano. Yet another different form of romancin’ particular to Ms. Russell occurs in Mary Lou Williams’s “Satchel Mount Baby,” a gently swinging blues love letter to Louis Armstrong (the title taken from his original nickname, “Satchel Mouth”) again giving much leeway to Shane for a lively piano solo, followed by guitarist Munisteri’s fat-toned solo. If the singers’ warmth toward this material is striking, their personal connection to it may be responsible: Ms. Russell’s late father, Luis Russell, was Armstrong’s long-time musical director, and her Juilliard-trained mother, the aforementioned Carline Ray, has performed with Mary Lou Williams.

At the studios of RTV Rijnmond, Rotterdam, Catherine Phillips performs the Fats Waller title tune of her 2010 album, Inside This Heart of Mine. Video from July 9, 2010 from RTVRijnmondExtra.

Otherwise, yes, the romancin’ is abundant and delectable: the sexy shuffle of a Hot Club-style treatment of “I’m In the Mood for Love” is impossibly sexy, complete as it is with a seductive, airy vocal and a 1920s Paris ambiance supplied by Joe Barbato’s evocative accordion and Munisteri’s ruminative, Django-like guitar solo; fueled by Shane’s exuberant piano, “Wake Up and Live” is a sprightly romp through the life affirming sentiments of the Mack Gordon-Harry Revel standard; the swing era comes alive in the horn-driven frolics of “Everybody Loves My Baby,” a sprightly workout with rousing solos courtesy Jon-Erik Kellso on muted trumpet and Dan Block on clarinet interspersed between Ms. Russell’s joyful assertions of her man’s devotion to her alone. And since nighttime is the right time, we get Lil Green’s “Romance In the Dark,” all sultry rhythm punctuated by Shane’s laconic blues piano monologue amidst Ms. Russell’s steamy vocal in which she deplooys the upper and middle ranges of her voice to raise the temperature of her lustful confessions.

So happy Valentine’s Day courtesy Catherine Russell. The day itself may be a manufactured event, but the music herein is vivid and honest, a tug on the heartstrings good all year ‘round.

Catherine Russell’s Strictly Romancin’ is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024