BWW Reviews: Catherine Russell Mesmerizes Lincoln Center's Allen Room With Swinging Tribute to Her Dad and Satchmo
If you've never been to the Allen Room for Jazz at Lincoln Center, the first thing that strikes you is the 50 x 90-foot, floor-to-ceiling glass wall behind the stage/bandstand that offers a breathtaking view of Columbus Circle, the southwest entrance to Central Park, and the Manhattan skyline. At night, the atmosphere possesses an ethereal-like quality so perhaps on the evening of March 31, the spirit of Luis Russell was proudly gazing through the glass at his daughter Catherine, who was honoring his memory by singing the jazz and blues numbers he and Louis Armstrong transformed into American standards.
Catherine was only seven when her Panamanian-born father died in 1963, but based on her stunning performance at the Allen Room, she obviously possesses the musical genes (also thanks to her mother, the musician and vocalist Carline Ray). "It took my whole life to become an overnight sensation," the pixie-ish Russell sweetly quipped at the start of her set, her dreds tied together in a classy, retro bun. And a sensation she is, having garnered rave views on all four of her CDs (over just six years) after a long career as a backup singer, warm-up act, or studio vocalist for everyone from Paul Simon to Michael Feinstein to Robert Klein. By the end of her Allen Room show, Russell had clearly proven that she has become one of the finest interpreters of jazz and blues on the contemporary music scene.
Supported by a superb 10-piece orchestra (including six horn players), almost the entire first half of Russell's set was a tribute to songs her father recorded or performed with the great Satchmo from the late 1920s through the 1930s. (In 1935, Armstrong took over the Luis Russell Orchestra and fronted the group until 1943. Russell remained as piano player, arranger, and musical director.) From her very first three numbers-the bouncy "I'm Shooting High" (written by Ted Koehler and Jimmy McHugh), the languid "Ev'ntide (Hoagy Carmichael), and the rhythmic and brassy "Everybody Loves My Baby" (featuring the entire horn section)-Russell conveyed the sound and style of the iconic female big band singers of the pre-and post-World World II era, from Doris Day to Anita O'Day, Abbey Lincoln to Francis Langford, and Ella Fitzgerald to Helen Forrest, with some subtle shades of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington in her vocals.
Russell went beautifully bluesy on the Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields ballad "I'm In the Mood for Love," her smooth, unaffected articulation of the lyrics blending perfectly with the big band sound. (Catherine's rendition of this song definitely moved the "Alfalfa" Switzer version from The Little Rascals into second place on my list.). Russell then related how she needed Michael Feinstein's help locating the chart for the joyously jazzy Harold Arlen/Ted Kohler number "Public Melody #1" (recorded by Luis Russell and Armstrong in 1937, the same year it was sung by Martha Raye in the film Artists and Models). And on the romantic jazz standard "I Cover the Waterfront" (Johnny Green/Edward Heyman), popularized by Holiday and other singers in 1933, Russell created her own Make-Believe Ballroom. (For next page, click Page 2 below)
Many of the songs in this show may have once been played by the Russell/Armstrong orchestra, but Catherine's musicians were a brassy hybrid of the Count Basie and Glenn Miller big bands, and her solid horn players came just short of blowing out the glass wall. Saxophonist Dan Block provided a sensational riff on both "Back O Town Blues" and "Lucille." Scott Robinson shined (as did the rest of the band) on both saxophone and clarinet on the up-tempo, ragtime-sounding "Sugar Foot Strut," and John Allred swung a mean jazz trombone on Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's "I'm Checking Out, Goombye" (the latter one of the six songs in the show featured on Russell's highly-acclaimed recent CD Strictly Romancin').
While Russell excels on any song style, she was alternately haunting and mesmerizing on the bluesy ballads, especially "Romance in the Dark," written by blues singer Lillian Green in 1940 and popularized by Dinah Washington. Russell wrapped her sultry alto around lyrics like "In the dark I get such a thrill/When he places his finger tips upon my lips/And he begs me 'Please be still in the dark,'" and made the song her own (with some solid swinging piano work by Mark Shane). With the help of the horn section, especially on the song's first few bars, Russell transformed the Billie Holiday song "No More," about the end of a love affair, into musical film noir reminiscent of the theme from the movie "Laura."
It was fitting and poetic that Russell's encore was the short and sweet "So Little Time (So Much to Do)," recorded in 1938 with Armstrong on trumpet and her dad on piano. In a lyrical nod to both her father, her mother Carline (who was beaming in the audience), and perhaps a statement about the rest of her career, Catherine jazzily cooed a universal truth:
There's so little time and so much to do
There's so little time for dreams to come true
Many a ship to sail, many a magic land
Many a moonlit trail, many a road to walk hand in hand
There's songs of love we never have sung
Let's not waste one hour, the night is still young
Mama, a lifetime's not enough for the love I have for you
There's so little time, so much to do
Hopefully, for the sake of blues and jazz lovers, Catherine Russell has much more to do.
Catherine Russell is appearing on April 13 at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club in Washington, DC; April 28 at the Palace Theatre in Syracuse, NY, and May 1 & 2 with Michael Feinstein and others at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Allen Room in New York City. For a complete schedule of Catherine's shows go to her website at: www.catherinerussell.net
Photo Credits: Elizabeth Leitzell/Jazz at Lincoln Center