Saturday, February 11, 2012

Catherine Russell – Strictly Romancin’

Strictly Romancin’
World Village Records

Catherine Russell has been just about my favourite present-day jazz singer ever since she finally released Cat, her debut album, in 2006 following a long career as a back-up singer for a variety of artists. The daughter of Luis Russell – who served as band leader for Louis Armstrong back in the day – and Carline Ray, a pioneering woman jazz musician, Cat is a great singer who brings out the best in classic and traditional jazz and blues tunes. Writing in the Montreal Gazette, I called that first album “glorious.” So too have been all of her subsequent releases.

Strictly Romancin’, Cat’s fourth album, is appropriately enough, being released on Tuesday, Valentine’s Day, as most of the songs, most of them classics, some of them obscure-but-great classics, deal with one aspect or another of romance.

There are, of course, different sides to the love relationship. There’s the ready-for-Valentine’s Day woman singing “I’m in the Mood for Love” and “Romance in the Dark”; the hopeless romantic singing “Ev’ntide”; and the spurned or out-of-love woman singing “Under the Spell of the Blues” and “No More.” Whether it’s an inherent loneliness in “Under the Spell of the Blues” or the anticipation of “Romance in the Dark,” Cat nails the appropriate feelings and emotions expressed in each song.

Among my very favourite tracks are humour-laced songs like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s kiss-off song “I’m Checkin’ Out, Goom’Bye,” an arrangement highlighted by the playful interaction between Cat and John Allred’s trombone, “Satchel Mouth Baby,” Mary Lou Williams’ shout-out to Louis Armstrong, and “Everybody Loves My Baby,” a fun, swinging tune made famous by the Boswell Sisters.

Certainly one of the most special tracks is the Sister Rosetta Tharpe-Marie Knight spiritual “He’s All I Need.” Backed by Mark Shane’s gospel piano, Cat and her mother, Carline Ray, sound positively inspired.

Cat’s arrangements are perfectly suited to each of the tunes and feature a terrific group of ace musicians – both the core members of her touring band and guests who contribute to select tracks. In addition to those already mentioned, some of the instrumental highlights include Matt Munisteri’s guitar solo on “Don’t Leave Me,” Joe Barbato’s romantic Paris café accordion on “I’m in the Mood for Love,” and Dan Block’s playful clarinet on “Everybody Loves My Baby.”

Catherine Russell draws on the influences of many great singers of bygone years to create a unique voice of her own and to make classic material seem as fresh and vital as ever. Kudos to Cat, to all of the musicians, and to producer Paul Kahn, for another in her series of excellent albums.

Click here for my review of Catherine Russell’s 2010 album, Inside This Heart of Mine.

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

--Mike Regenstreif

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