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Review: Whether Jazzy or Bluesy, Catherine Russell & Her Sextet Offer Audiences Enthralling Performances of Iconic Music at Birdland

Catherine Russell unleashes her power at Birdland.

"If they wrote'm like that today," Catherine Russell sighs after a particularly saucy number during her show last night at Birdland, "I wouldn't have to go back 90 years." A Russell show is like actually being there then--primarily from the early 1900s through the 1940s. Which is not to say the artist sacrifices her own, original phrasing for imitation, but rather that feelings evoked by stylish arrangements and spot-on attitude transport us. She offers her audiences vivid authenticity, musical backbone. I'm frequently a part of that audience, not only as a journalist, but also an unabashed fan.

Russell's top flight sextet (wearing suit jackets, bless'm) is comprised of some of the best in the business: Matt Munistieri-MD, guitar/banjo, Mark Shane-piano, Tal Ronen-bass, Mark McLean-drums, Jon-Erik Kelso-trumpet, Evan Arntzen-reeds. That the band was clearly having a swell time made the evening even more infectious. Mutual respect and appreciation are palpable.

We begin with 1930's "Them There Eyes" (Maceo Pinkard/Doris Tauber/ William Tracey). Phrases are short and tight. By second verse, the vocalist strays from a well-trod path, creating her own stop/start interpretation. Kelso zigzags. His cheeks, unlike that of musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, don't fill with air. Only a pocket holds enough for all that power. Arntzen stays smooth--one note tailgating the next; Russell embroiders.

"In The Dark" (Lil Green): In the dark, it's just you and I/There's not a sound and there's not one sigh/Just the beat of my poor heart/In the dark . . . conjures the kind of slow dancing where couples barely move. Russell's eyebrows rise as if signaling and the next verse revs up. "Yeah, baby" arrives in six syllables as she kneads the lyric. Munistieri bends his knees and furrows his brow-guitar is sinuous "Slow dancing is not overrated," the performer wisely comments.

Catherine Russell sings to Matt Munistieri's sinuous guitar riffs.

Also enthralling is Billie Holiday's low octave "You're My Thrill." Arntzen's sax is dusky. Russell draws out and releases her "s" like smoke rings that dissolve in air. She suddenly seems heavy-lidded. Shane's piano yearns. Never has the song so reflected pleasure/pain. "This is the kind of tune I gotta just stop what I'm doin' and I love when that happens," she muses. Russell's father, musician, songwriter, arranger, band leader, Luis Russell, eventually became the Musical Director for Louis Armstrong. Not for nothing does Catherine have these sounds in her blood. Many of the vocalist's shows offer a sampling of his oeuvre. Tonight we hear "Goin' To Town" with staccato lyrics eliciting sparks. Russell moves like nobody's business.

As music courses through her, we share the performer's personal experience. Kelso and Arntzen seem to be playing billiards--each solo is a shot sending out tangents to which the other responds. Munistieri contributes punchy banjo. This is some party! Later, we hear the terrific "Lucille," written for Armstrong's wife. A sincere, honey-cured vocal is twirled and dipped. Horns echo sentiments.

On the gleefully sassy side are "You Got the Right Key, but the Wrong Keyhole," recorded by Virginia Liston in the 1920s, wherein a fed up woman changes the house locks, declaring to her frustrated man: You've got the right key. But the wrong keyhole . . . and the sultry, winking "Aged and Mellow" (Esther Phillips): I've got a strange philosophy/Nothing here appeals to me/I like my men like I like my whiskey/Mmm, aged and mellow! . . . In the first, Russell looks distinctly like the Cheshire Cat and boy, do you believe those lyrics. Arntzen's clarinet seems to echo-you hear what I say?! During the second, she's provocative, tickled. We imagine what she's imagining. Shane's piano offers a terrific solo, kind of down on its haunches innuendo.

With Jon-Erik Kelso on trumpet, Catherine Russell wails.

Irving Berlin's "Harlem On My Mind" describes a jaded mistress who regrets having traded uptown roots for a life on the duller Park Avenue. Suddenly rolling her 'r's Russell sings, My lips begin to whisper "Mon Cheri"/But my heart keeps singing "Hi-de-ho" . . . We envision her dragging a white fur, letting it drop with a shrug. The arrangement is richly textured. It's as if music eddies around us, encompassing the club. 'Affecting.

Catherine Russell reclaims eras of iconic musicianship and direct expression. She can sing haute swing, backdoor suggestion, potent distress, uninhibited shindig . . . Standards are high, arrangements meaty, performance slam-dunk savvy. Go. Have a great time.

Catherine Russell and Her Sextet continues at Birdland with 8:30 and 11 pm shows from December 16-19. Birdland, 315 West 44th St, New York, NY, 10036.

Photos by Lou Montesano/Still Rock Photography

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From This Author - Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of ... (read more about this author)