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Catherine Russell breathes new life into a rich legacy

Marv Goldschmitt

Catherine Russell was visiting the Louis Armstrong archives in Queens a few years ago, researching songs from the Armstrong book dating back to the days when her dad, Luis Russell, was his musical director.

Among the materials was an unidentified demo recording of three songs, made with a female vocalist. Russell was asked if she could help identify the personnel.

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“The first second I heard it, I said: That’s my mother singing,” Russell recounts. “This is a great song and a standard that nobody’s ever heard.” It seems to have been taped in the Washington Heights apartment she remembers from childhood, and nowadays she even owns the Hammond organ used on the recording.

Her father wrote the song (called “Lucille”) for Armstrong’s consideration, but it was never recorded formally. It was a perfect find for Russell — as both an undiscovered artifact from mid-century vocal jazz and a family heirloom.

Russell followed a circuitous path on her way to her present incarnation, as a vivacious re-interpreter of the Great American Songbook and a conservationist of her family’s musical legacy. A longtime backup singer for rock acts ranging from Steely Dan to David Bowie, she took side trips to Broadway and Hollywood before finally emerging with her first solo album in 2006.

As she waded through different streams of show business, some more glamorous than others, her family lineage bestowed credibility in the jazz world. Luis Russell was a celebrated bandleader in his own right (in addition to his work with Armstrong), and her mother, Carline Ray, enjoyed a long career as a trailblazer for women in jazz, spanning guitar and vocal duties with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and several years on the road as Ruth Brown’s bassist.

But with a steady series of well-received albums (her fifth as a solo artist, “Bring It Back,” was released this week), Russell has emerged on her own terms as a charismatic bandleader with a knack for mining deep grooves in overlooked selections from the songbooks of the great ladies of jazz and blues — think Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan — as well as the worlds of rhythm and blues and Tin Pan Alley.

Long illuminated by the reflected glow of her parents’ music, Russell has now earned the cachet to direct her own professional momentum toward a heightened appreciation of her forbearers’ contributions.

“I feel like I went into the family business,” she says in a phone interview from her home in New York City. “It’s a joy. It’s incredible for me to keep them alive through what I’m doing.”

She led a 2012 concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center highlighting Russell père’s work with Armstrong. She produced her mother’s only record as a lead vocalist, shortly before Ray’s death last year.

“Lucille” is featured on Russell’s new album, along with three other songs freshly arranged for that New York showcase and others associated with Fats Waller and Cleo Brown. Her jazz combo is augmented to a brass-heavy 10-piece on some tracks, adding some big(ger) band heft to the hard-swinging proceedings. (When she plays Scullers on Friday, she’ll be backed by a quartet.)

Despite the historically minded tilt of recent projects, Russell is no curator of faded memories. Her musical instincts tend toward fresh interpretations intended to breathe life into old songs. On her new album, a merry reading of “You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb” recalls the early days of jazz, while “I’m Sticking With You Baby” is a rib-sticking stew of gospel and rhythm and blues. The title of “You Got to Swing and Sway” pretty accurately describes its likely effect on listeners.

“Everything she does, she makes the music really come alive. There’s absolutely nothing that is museum-like about her performances,” says Matt Munisteri, who’s been the guitarist and musical director for her last four albums. “She and I feel this music in a real, for lack of a better term, booty-shaking way. Whenever we play, there’s nothing prim about the type of swing that we’re doing. It’s rump-shaking music from back in the day.”

Russell says there’s fresh relevance to be found in that body of songs bestowed with the potentially ossifying term “standards.”

“Young folks are going back into the archives too. They’re going back into the standards and the classic material. So that is really encouraging,” she says. “I think people are still craving the real thing.”

Citing Sunday night’s televised concert special featuring Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as the influences from James Brown and Jackie Wilson on display in Bruno Mars’s performance in the Super Bowl halftime show, Russell says there’s a timelessness in some of the old ways that continues to speak to new listeners.

“A good song is a good song. They ask questions about love and the human condition. And so when I find these tunes, I can live through them and I’m asking the same questions. The main point in the music surviving,” she says, “is that the content is always fresh. However you do the tune, you can live through the tune. The tune carries you. You don’t have to think about putting any extra drama or emotion onto it. The tune will take you.”

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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