Jazz Family – Take 2

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.

World VillageWV 468063

World Village
WV 468063

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 isofrThis 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.

ASV Living EraCD AJA 5658

ASV Living Era
CD AJA 5658

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.

World VillageWV 468075

World Village
WV 468075

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.

World VillageWV 468092

World Village
WV 468092

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.

World VillageWV 468101

World Village
WV 468101


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