February 17, 2013
With seemingly effortless ease, jazz singer Catherine Russell performs her art with exceptional skill. Melodic grace, a lilting sense of swing, profound understanding and interpretation of lyrics, are all elements of her style, which she brings to a repertoire that is exceptionally attractive with its often intriguing selection of songs. Intriguing because while the composers and lyricists are frequently those associated with the great American popular classics of the 1920s and 30s and 40s, the songs Catherine presents are often little-known gems that slipped out of sight and have been seldom performed in the following decades.
The surprise a listener might feel on hearing this singer and her repertoire vanishes when her background is revealed, because Catherine Russell’s musical roots lie in her immediate family. For her, nature has been at least as important as nurture. Catherine’s musical blood, and her jazz genes, come from both her mother and her father, and both parents were steeped in music, especially jazz, and enjoyed notable careers in earlier years.
Catherine’s mother was Carline Ray, who was born in New York City in 1925 into a musical family, her father being a trained classical musician who also played with James Reese Europe’s groundbreaking band. In her mid-teens Carline attended the Juilliard School of Music, studying composition and also developing an interest in jazz and becoming skilled on guitar and double bass. On graduating from Juilliard in 1946, she joined the International Sweethearts Of Rhythm, playing guitar and singing. After this, Carline sang and played guitar with the Erskine Hawkins band before forming a trio with former Sweethearts bandmates, bassist Edna Smith and drummer Pauline Braddy. The trio played at various clubs in New York and Carline also played in other bands and continued with her musical studies, receiving a master’s degree in voice This was in 1956, the year she also married Luis Russell whom she had met when the trio played at a club he managed in New York. During the next several years, Carline sang and also played guitar and double bass with various groups and in many different musical settings, among which are jazz, popular music, and classical music; in the latter form she became especially noted for her work in choral music. In later years, Carline played and sang with jazz musicians as diverse as Arnie Lawrence, on Look Towards A Dream,Jimmy Smith, Stay Loose, and Mary Lou Williams, Mary Lou’s Mass, these recordings coming during the late 1960s and early 70s.
In the 1990s, Carline Ray was still active, playing bass with Red Richards, Swing Time, and as backing singer with Ruth Brown, Live In London., recorded at Ronnie Scott’s. In 2003, Carline sang with Kit McClure’s big band that recorded The Sweethearts Project, a tribute to the International Sweethearts Of Rhythm.
Catherine’s father, Luis Russell, was an important bandleader and arranger, his true standing often clouded because of his association with Louis Armstrong, whose dazzling star inevitably dimmed the light of those around him. Luis Carl Russell was born in Panama in 1902 and through the influence of his father, a music teacher, he developed skills on several instruments including guitar, violin and piano. He played piano in silent movie theatrs and at local clubs before uprooting and settling in New Orleans in his mid-teens. There he concentrated on playing piano and was soon an active participant in the city’s flourishing music scene. Although he played in bands led by front-rank musicians, Luis possessed the necessary qualities to be himself a bandleader and his groups were in great demand in New Orleans in the early 1920s. In mid-decade however, he answered a call to join Doc Cooke’s band in Chicago where he also played in King Oliver’s band, but after a few years he was again leading a band, this time in New York City.
Through the late 1920s and into the early 30s, Luis led his band in clubs both in the city and on tour and was one of only a few leaders who, through his arrangements, sought to adapt elements of the music of New Orleans into the burgeoning big band music of the swing era. It was during this period that the band frequently backed Louis Armstrong, then in an early stage of his solo career. This connection became so strong that in late 1935 the billing was changed and Luis’s band became known as Louis Armstrong’s Orchestra. Luis Russell stayed on as musical director, playing piano and arranging and all this while continuing his musical studies, something he had never suspended for long wherever he happened to be working. In 1943, Luis left the Armstrong entourage and formed a new band that he led for a few more years. In 1948, he bowed out of a full-time career in music although he continued to play with pick-up groups and even returned to Panama for a classical music engagement. Also through these years that led into the early 1960s, he managed clubs and, like his father before him, taught music. Luis Russell died in 1963.
With parents like Carline Ray and Luis Russell it is hardly surprising that Catherine Russell is so thoroughly steeped in music, singing and arranging with considerable skill. This last observation, together with foregoing remarks about her choice of songs, should not lead anyone into misconstruing the use of the word ‘steeped’ – in no way should this be taken to suggest that Catherine Russell is mired in the past. Far from it. She is fully aware of the changes that have taken place in jazz and other forms of popular music during her lifetime. On the path she has taken as she has honed her art are spells as backing singer for pop acts such as David Bowie, Madonna and Steely Dan. And while her repertoire includes lesser-known gems by the great composers of the past, she is also heard singing the music of today; but underpinning all that she does with the solid foundation of all that has helped make jazz eternal.
Among the songs she sings are, on Cat, Can’t We Be Friends, Blue Memories and Darn That Dream, on Sentimental Streak, Oh Yes, Take Another Guess and You For Me, Me For You, while on Inside This Heart Of Mine, Catherine allows contemporary songs, such as November and Just Because You Can, to rub congenial shoulders with jazz and blues classics, like Inside This Heart Of Mine, a seldom-heard song by Fats Waller, All The Cats Join In and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue. On Strictly Romancin’, the songs Catherine sings are all decades old, yet are sung by her, to her own arrangements, as if they are newly minted: Romance In The Dark, Everybody Loves My Baby, I’m Checking Out, Goom’Bye, Ev’ntide and He’s All I Need.
The last title is a song composed by gospel stars of yesteryear Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight and for this performance Catherine is joined in a vocal duet by her mother, Carline Ray, thus effectively and endearingly completing the circle of her musical life.
Without question, Catherine Russell is an outstanding jazz singer who effortlessly brings elements of the blues and bop and latterday pop into the jazz fold with love and understanding. Hearing her sing is an endless pleasure and one that all who love jazz singing should share.
Longer reviews of Inside This Heart Of Mine and Strictly Romancin’ appear in Jazz Journal in, respectively, September 2010 and June 2012. As always, any of the albums referred to above can be found at many stores, including Amazon.
February 1, 2013
Given Joan Merrill’s impeccable jazz credentials, her decision to write jazz-based crime novels meant there was a good chance that the characters and the settings would be right. But could she write crime fiction?
Until this point in her life, Joan had worked on the jazz scene in talent management and booking, as publicist for various jazz singers, and had produced radio shows for NPR’s award-winning Jazz Profiles and PRI’s Smithsonian Productions. She also produced excellent CDs by jazz singers Nancy Kelly (Well, Alright!) and Rebecca Parris (You Don’t Know Me), and the masterly video documentary, Saying It With Jazz.
Joan is presently producer of Qué Sera! Celebrating Doris Day, a stage show starring Kristi King (released on CD in September 2012).
So far, so good.
Fortunately for lovers of crime writing, things got even better when Joan’s first novel was published in 2010 and it was immediately apparent that she certainly could write crime fiction.
Creating an exceptionally good lead character, gutsy San Francisco-based PI Casey McKie, who happens to be a jazz fan, Joan set out to write a continuing series of novels.
The first of these is And All That Murder, which kicks off when Casey’s good friend, veteran jazz singer and club owner Dee Jefferson, urges her to inquire into the death of a jazz club owner. As Casey investigates, the bodies pile up, all linked to jazz; alarmingly for some of us, these include less than generous critics.
“Jazz lovers will feel … joy as Ms Merrill craftily deflects suspicion from suspect to suspect before sounding the final chord in this swinging whodunit.”
–– Harvey Siders, Jazz Times
And All That Murder by Joan Merrill, iUniverse, Inc. ISBN 978-1-4401-9163-3 (ebook ISBN 978-1-4401-9164-0)
In the sequel, And All That Sea, Casey McKie takes a Caribbean vacation aboard a jazz cruise ship. Dee Jefferson is one of the star attractions and others on board include jazz veterans and newcomers, some of whom turn out to have shady secrets when Casey investigates the disappearance of a mysterious and very rich jazz-loving countess.
And All That Sea by Joan Merrill, iUniverse, Inc. ISBN 978-1-4502-7539-2 (ebook ISBN 978-1-4502-7540-8)
The third book, And All That Stalking, finds Casey again pulled into a case by Dee Jefferson, who asks her to help jazz drummer Greg Sanderson. He is suspected of murdering his girlfriend, an aspiring jazz singer, but when Casey investigates, she soon discovers that she is on the trail of a serial killer targeting young jazz singers.
And All That Stalking by Joan Merrill, CreateSpace. ISBN 1-4679-7283-5 (ebook ISBN 9 781467 972833)
Casey McKie’s latest case, And All That Madness, takes her to New York and a mystery surrounding the long-ago death of Georgia Valentine, jazz singing star of the 1950s. Only the authorities believe the death was from a drug overdose; Georgia’s friends have other ideas. With a newly-discovered letter opening fresh lines of inquiry, Casey encounters Georgia’s ex-husband, a former narcotics agent, a drug dealer, a mafia boss, and a wealthy socialite, along the way to eventually unearthing shocking truths about the jazz legend’s life and death.
And All That Madness by Joan Merrill, CreateSpace. ISBN 13: 978-1480278981 (ebook ISBN 0 000000 000000)
Throughout Joan Merrill’s books, almost all of the characters, major and minor, are jazz people: singers, instrumentalists, agents, promoters, jazz writers, a mob-linked owner of a seedy club, a writer of bad songs, a vocal coach, the publisher of a jazz magazine, and some fans. There is on-going commentary on today’s jazz scene and how it differs from yesterday. No preaching, just strong and well-argued opinions during realistic conversations between characters.
Writing with flair and imagination, Joan’s pace is crisp, her dialogue snappy and apposite, and comments on jazz, the music and the people, are insightful. These are books that will appeal both to lovers of crime fiction and to jazz fans. To those who are fans of both genres they will be a special delight.
With four novels completed, and more on the way, Joan Merrill has clearly demonstrated that she has enough jazz and crime in mind to keep her private investigator, Casey McKie, busy for a long, long time.
Reviews of these books appear in Jazz Journal.
All the books, CDs and DVDs mentioned here are available from various sources, but probably best direct from Joan Merrill’s Website.
And speaking of Websites, you must visit Joan’s wonderful tribute to Carmen McRae.