Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Catherine Russell -- Inside This Heart of Mine

Inside This Heart of Mine
World Village

In the spring of 2006, an album called Cat by Catherine Russell, a singer I’d never heard of before, landed on my desk. As a radio host and producer, and as a music reviewer for Sing Out! and several other publications, a lot of albums by artists I’ve never heard of before land on my desk. Every once in a while, one of those albums jumps out at me from the first track and I know I’m hearing someone special.

And so it was with Catherine Russell. She grabbed me from this first track, an old jazz tune called “Sad Lover Blues.” Cat’s version – Cat, short for Catherine, has been her nickname since childhood – blends classic blues, swing, R&B and country influences into something a jazz-loving folkie like me was going to take to right away. As I listened to the other 14 songs on the album, it quickly became obvious that this was a great singer who’d certainly been exposed to all of those kinds of music and much more.

It was easy to tell – from the sound of her voice and the maturity of her delivery, and from the pictures on the CD cover that showed an attractive, middle-aged woman – that Cat couldn’t be a newcomer to the world of music. But why, I wondered, hadn’t I heard of her before? How could it be that this 50-year-old singer was releasing her very first album?

Montreal has the world’s largest jazz festival and in my review of Cat for The Montreal Gazette, I said, “Russell needs to be here at the jazz festival next year.” Somebody at the jazz festival was paying attention and there she was, in June 2007, wowing a crowd of 10,000 or more at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. And her trip to Montreal for the jazz festival gave me the opportunity to sit down with Cat and find out about this fabulous singer I’d never heard of before that album landed on my desk.

I found out from Cat that she’d spent the first three decades of her career as a side person, helping make other artists sound good. “People ask me all the time why I waited so long to do my first record,” she said. I wasn’t waiting. I was a side person.”

Those are the opening paragraphs to “Blues & Country & All That Jazz: The Genre Fusing Music of Catherine Russell,” an article I wrote for the Winter 2008 issue of Sing Out! Magazine.

When I interviewed Catherine Russell on Folk Roots/Folk Branches and for that Sing Out! article, Cat was preparing to record Sentimental Streak, her second CD. Released about the same time as the article was published, Sentimental Streak was every bit as good as that inspired debut that grabbed me in 2006.

I could say the same about Cat’s third release, Inside This Heart of Mine. But, I won’t, because, if anything, it’s even better. Her alto, sounding even more relaxed and confident than before, pulls you right into this set of mostly classic jazz and blues tunes anchored by inventive arrangements steeped in all of the kinds of music she grew up listening to – her parents are the late Luis Russell, a jazz legend who was Louis Armstrong’s bandleader in the 1930s and ‘40s, and Carline Ray, a bass player and singer, who was a member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a band that made history in the 1940s as the first all-female big band – and all the different kinds of music she’s played and sung over the years.

I love the whole album, but if I had to pick a few highlights they’d certainly include what is now my all-time favourite version of Willie Dixon’s oft-recorded “Spoonful,” featuring some wonderful blues banjo playing by Matt Munisteri (who’s heard on guitar for most of the album and on banjo on a couple of others) and the tuba of the always-wonderful Howard Johnson; “We the People,” a delightful Fats Waller tune from 1938 that swings like mad that I’d never heard before; “Long, Strong and Consecutive,” a sassy song filled with double entendres which seems like it could be a Bessie Smith song but was actually written by Duke Ellington in the 1940s; and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” a great old tune that Cat’s father must have played hundreds of times with Louis Armstrong.

Along with the classic material, Cat also includes a couple of great contemporary songs that fit right in. “November,” is a sad song of separation written by producer Paul Kahn; and “Just Because You Can,” written by Rachelle Garniez, sounds like something Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli might have played (if Reinhardt played banjo).

Catherine Russell is always a joy to listen to. Inside This Heart of Mine will be released on April 13.

Pictured: Catherine Russell and Mike Regenstreif at CKUT during Folk Roots/Folk Branches (June 28, 2007).

--Mike Regenstreif

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