Catherine Russell Captures All the Shades of Blue in the New Orleans Musical Tradition

This week at Birdland, the singer is serving two masters: It’s Mardi Gras at New Orleans and it’s Valentine’s Day everywhere. These two events necessitate two entirely different kinds of music.

Howard Melton
Catherine Russell at Birdland. Howard Melton

Catherine Russell
Through February 18

“I’ve given up sadness for Lent,” singer Catherine Russell tells the crowd at the start of her late show on opening night of her ongoing run at Birdland. Since the passing of the great Freddie Cole at the start of the pandemic, Ms. Russell has been the most dependable Valentine’s attraction a jazz venue could possibly have.

This week, though, Ms. Russell is serving two masters: on one hand, it’s Mardi Gras at New Orleans, an occasion worth celebrating nationally and even globally; on the other, it’s Valentine’s Day everywhere. These two events necessitate two entirely different kinds of music.  

Valentine’s Day songs are romantic and intimate, about the most personal relationships that exist, whereas Mardi Gras songs are just the opposite — extroverted and outgoing, they don’t just ask you to have a good time, they literally command you to party until you pass out.

Two opposing ideas? Not necessarily. It helps that Ms. Russell has her usual high level of accompaniment, with guitarist and musical director Matt Munisteri leading a rhythm section of pianist Ben Paterson, bassist Tal Ronin, and drummer Mark McLean, along with three hornsL trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, trombonist John Allred, and Evan Arntzen on clarinet and multiple saxophones.  

Ms. Russell is in a good position to understand the music of New Orleans, as her father, the pianist, composer, and bandleader Luis Russell (1902-63) was one of the founding fathers of jazz, and closely associated with both King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. It’s been nearly a century since Russell made his first recordings — with a group of Crescent expats at Chicago — and Ms. Russell shows that the notion of New Orleans music covers a much wider range of styles that might be organized chronologically than it does geographically.

To that end, the band started with an instrumental of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” a 1922 song by a pair of African-American composers, Henry Creamer and Turner Layton. Over the course of the set there were songs by other Black songwriters, such as “Sticks and Stones,” which was Andy Razaf’s contribution to the era of the swinging nursery rhyme and was famously recorded by Henry “Red” Allen, another NOLA trumpet master and associate of Russell pere, even before “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”  Then there was “Do the Fat Tuesday” by Kermit Ruffins, a contemporary brass giant, in which she led us with a rather insistent dance instruction — lots of putting hands on hips.

Indeed, Ms. Russell is one of the few singers ever who can so expertly capture all the shades of blue in the New Orleans musical tradition. Much of the set was a swinging survey of NOLA R&B legends, among them Barbara George’s “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More),” essentially a torch song with a very heavy backbeat; Earl King’s “Come On,” another dance-driven bacchanal; Lee Dorsey’s “People Gonna Talk”; and “Don’t You Make Me High,” a very personal and rather private party from the repertoire of Blue Lu Barker. 

Taking a wider territorial survey, Mr. Russell offered other examples of the classic blues, such as the 1920 “It’s Right Here For You” and Helen Humes’s 1944 “Fortune Tellin’ Man,” which inspired a moaning, muted solo from Mr. Kellso. And she explored other vices well beyond the more carnal aspects of the carnival, with Amos Milburn’s ‘One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer,” during which bartender Brian Wilson was happy to demonstrate.

Ms. Russell and her seven-piece orchestra guided us through a wide range of styles; embracing her father’s central American origins (he grew up in Panama and moved to New Orleans in his late teens), she treated us to a full-on calypso, “Dorothy” by The Mighty Sparrow. After singing it, she informed us she had chosen that one because most pre-Harry Belafonte calypsos — famously “Stone Cold Dead in the Market” — are excessively homicidal.

Even so, there was space for traditional love songs as well, among them a tender yet still rhythmic reading of “The Touch of Your Lips” by British bandleader Ray Noble, which boasted a zesty tenor solo from Mr. Arntzen.  Then there’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” representing the unique confluence of Oscar Hammerstein II, the Marx Brothers, and Louis Armstrong, who all play a role in that song’s history. She knows perfectly how to switch gears, and intermingle a little romance amidst all the revelry.

At the close of her late set, she revised her statement from the opening: “This year, I’m also giving up depression for lent.” Catherine Russell performs with so much joy and positivity that both sadness and depression wouldn’t be caught within a thousand miles of Birdland.

The New York Sun

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