Had vocalist Catherine Russell been born a few decades earlier, one can easily imagine her among America’s great 20th century jazz divas. She has been compared to Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, whom she most resembles in her joyous and unaffected approach to music and to performing. Her voice, like Ella’s, is as refreshing as a cool breeze when you’re sweating a muggy South Florida summer’s day.
Russell has brought her infectious joie de vivre and interpretive genius to jazz festivals worldwide and performed to sold-out houses at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. Her third album, Inside this Heart of Mine, topped iTunes’ jazz charts, and her fourth, Strictly Romancin’, was named best jazz vocal album by France’s distinguished Académie du Jazz. Her next album, Harlem on my Mind, is due out in September. She performs Thursday as part of the Coral Gables Congregational Church’s summer jazz series.
As a youngster growing up in the Bronx, the multifaceted Russell loved rock, but she also loved soul and the blues. Otis Redding and Al Greene were her soundtrack, Etta James her idol. “I probably saw Etta James perform 30 times,” she said recently by phone. “I love soul singing, gospel singing. I love the freedom of that. . . . Jazz came much later.”
Surprising, because her jazz roots run deep. Her father, Luis Russell, was a popular bandleader from Panama who was musical director and arranger for Louis Armstrong in the 1930s and ’40s. Her mother, Carline Ray, a Juilliard-trained pianist and composer, toured as a bassist in the 1940s in an integrated all-female group called the International Sweethearts of Swing. “She was a showstopper,” says Russell.
Her youth was rich not just with music but dance and theater. As a child, she was in modern dance legend Katherine Dunham’s company. She later graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. “It was probably the best decision I ever made, just in terms of rigorous training,” Russell says. The masterful way she transmits a song’s story and emotional content owes a debt to her early training in drama. But the lack of good parts for black actresses made her reconsider a life in acting.
“I knew I wanted to travel and I wanted to work with great artists,” she says. So she spent her early career 20 feet from stardom, singing and playing keyboards, mandolin, guitar or percussion for iconic rock stars like Paul Simon, Cyndi Lauper and David Bowie. When Bowie stopped touring, Russell decided she was ready to step into the spotlight singing vintage jazz, blues and swing.
“It took a while for me to find musicians that really embraced the music that I want to do,” she says. Matt Munisteri, whose guitar playing adorns her voice like a strand of pearls, came along first. He introduced her to stride piano master Mark Shane, and then to the bass player Tal Ronen. “He’s only in his 30s,” Russell says. “But he’s so knowledgeable and so versed in the style of music I do.”
Russell, too, has an encyclopedic knowledge of every song she sings. “She’s a scholar, the real deal,” says singer Toshi Reagon, with whom Russell has performed frequently. “Nobody does what she does.”
Russell serves up everything from sweet ballads to salty lyrics bursting with double entendre, dating from as far back as the 1920s. But as Tracy Fields, host of WLRN’s Evening Jazz, points out, with Russell “everything old is new again. She sings old tunes, but they don’t sound old.”
Convincing young U.S. audiences of the timelessness of these songs has been a challenge. But if worshippers of Amy Winehouse or even Adele would take a listen, they would realize that Russell’s music is drawn from the same deep emotional well.
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If You Go
What: Catherine Russell in concert
Where: Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ, 3010 De Soto Blvd., Coral Gables (across from the Biltmore Hotel)
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Info: $30, communityartsprogram.org or 305-448-7421, ext. 153
The Summer Concert Jazz Series continues through Aug. 18 with concerts by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and her quartet, the Peter and Will Anderson Jazz Trio and Spanish classical guitarist Sir Ángel Romero.