It’s not at all uncommon to bump into esteemed jazz vocalist Catherine Russell at the Association of Performing Arts Prsenters conference, held every year at the New York Hilton—and last month proved no exception.
Except that this year, Russell, who’s known for her support vocal work for the likes of Steely Dan, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs in addition to her own recordings, paused to talk about her fifth solo album, Bring It Back. Recorded with an expanded 10-piece band, the disc will be released next week (Feb. 11) via JazzVillage/harmonia mundi.
The album, which follows her award-winning (the Prix du Jazz Vocal from L'Acadamie du Jazz and the Grand Prix du Hot Club de France) 2012 set Strictly Romancin', finds Russell assaying everything from early jazz to swing and R&B, with a special nod to her parents.
Her mother, the pioneering 1940s female jazz musician Carline Ray, died shortly after Bring It Back was completed. Her late father was longtime Louis Armstrong band leader/arranger Luis Russell, represented on the album by songs deriving from their collaboration and manifested in Russell’s Louis And Luis 2012 concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center, which included her new album’s tracks "I'm Shooting High" and "Public Melody Number One."
But also prominently featured is the first-ever recording of her father’s song "Lucille," which was recently discovered in the Armstrong archives.
“I’m always looking for Luis Russell material,” says Russell, “and there aren’t that many vocal tunes of his. We were visiting the Louis Armstrong House Museum, and [archivist] Ricky Riccardi was digitizing a reel-to-reel tape, and the person singing on it turned out to be my mother! She had demoed—with organist Frank Anderson--three tunes that my father had written for Louis to record but were never recorded, including ‘Lucille.’ It was a great find, and they let us have it.”
She’s now deciding whether the other two songs on the reel “fit me,” she says, noting that she still has her father’s Hammond C3 organ that Anderson played on.
But she also delved into her father’s archive, and discovered that he knew Cleo Patra Brown, a great pianist and vocalist who was known as the female Fats Waller.
“Everybody kind of worked with everybody, and they were all on the same shows back in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s,” says Russell, who includes Brown’s “You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb” on Bring It Back. “He knew artists I seem to be drawn to, so I guess it’s a family thing.”
She also revives Little Willie John’s “I’m Sticking With You Baby.”
“He’s another R&B vocalist I thought was amazing, who did a lot of recording in his teens, but didn’t live long,” she says of John, who died in 1968 at 30. “It makes me happy to go through and find things that might have been hits in their day but are now forgotten because radio doesn’t go that far back.”
Al Hibbler’s 1956 hit “After The Lights Go Down Low” actually returned Russell to her childhood, as it was played at the end of each day by the radio station she listened to at the time. Ida Cox’s “You Got To Swing And Sway” surfaced after she sought a blues tune and listened to recordings by “Uncrowned Queen of the Blues” Cox, who also played with Luis Russell.
Bring It Back’s titletrack comes from ‘40s/’50s jump blues shouter Wynonie Harris, while “Aged And Mellow” was a 1952 Johnny Otis tune that was a hit for Esther Phillips.
“I like to mix up swing, rhythm-and-blues and blues,” Russell explains. “I look at the album and say, ‘I got this. Let me look for that.’ Then I take a few CDs with me when I travel and listen sitting at airports and on planes—which is how I found ‘Bring It Back.’ I test them out at gigs and write charts, and if it goes well, I record them.”
Then she goes to APAP.
“I see what’s going on around me, and see the promoters and producers who give me work and say hi and thank them,” she says. “Every year I get something out of it, and I’m already getting a whole slew of mid-Atlantic and Midwest gigs coming in.”
Meanwhile, Russell is celebrating the release of Bring It Back at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola on Feb. 24, where she’ll be backed by a six-piece horn section, allowing her to replicate most of the album’s arrangements.
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