By Rob Lester, Talkin’ Broadway

CATHERINE RUSSELL
ALONE TOGETHER

Dot Time Records

“Authentic” is the adjective that best describes singer Catherine Russell’s ownership of old jazz and blues. Another Grammy nomination and her February residency at Birdland in Manhattan is a cue to bring focus now to her latest recording, one which was singled out as the most-played in its field by jazz radio folks who keep track of such tracks. While some vocalists come across as visitors venturing to vintage territory, this veteran sounds like the mayor of the territory who’s lived there all her life and knows every winding stream, nook and cranny, feet planted firmly in fertile soil.

The refreshing reality-checked Russell persona is distinctive in her non-sentimentalized approach so indelible on Alone Together, named for the maturely handled dramatic Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz collaboration from the 1832 Broadway revue Flying Colors. Perhaps it’s her projection of someone who has her eyes wide open and her feet on the ground that informs her treatment of classic love ballads. She sounds convinced of her feelings: “We can weather the great unknown,” she asserts, without a scintilla of doubt. Her strength does not prevent Catherine Russell from convincingly taking on idealizing the object of her affection as an “angel” in the effective “When Did You Leave Heaven?” with a trio of string players making it all the more heavenly indeed. But be forewarned to leave “naive” where it died along with the corsage from your school prom.

However, even her most sarcastic struts are more in playful mode. This triumphant time around, in her seventh solo recording, her old-timey suggestive choice is the amusingly titled “He May Be Your Dog But He’s Wearing My Collar.” This limited-patience straight-talking gal wants a straight answer to “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?”—and deserves it. Not suffering fools gladly, her sail through “You Can’t Pull the Wool Over My Eyes” could be an owned mantra or fair warning. For the one not heeding, she can dis and dismiss a weaker candidate lover with aplomb and a shrug. You tell ’em, Catherine!

Musical director/guitarist Matt Munisteri and pianist Mark Shane shine in tasty accompaniment and instrumental passages, as bassist Tal Ronen lays down the groove; they’re joined on seven of the 13 cuts by two brass (Jon-Erik Kellso and John Allred) and sax (Evan Arntzen). It’s sensational teamwork that is consistently engaging and richly expands the moods and attitudes. Game for blues, ballads, or brashness, Catherine Russell is at the top of her game.

LA TANYA HALL
SAY YES

Blue Canoe Records

Some “intermissions” drag on. In the case of sultry songstress La Tanya Hall, it’s been more than a decade’s wait for her second solo recording. My response to its arrival is to quote the title of her pleasing first album: It’s About Time! She’s now released the intriguing Say Yes, with piano, arrangements, and production by Andy Milne, who is also her talented husband. This go-round finds her even more steeped in jazz, some choices more accessible than others for the less adventurous listener. Seven of the 11 tracks may feel lengthy, going past the five-minute mark with time becoming elastic and the band and singer lingering over and stretching phrases and exploring. Throughout most of this, there’s a shimmering quality to the voice, with a delicacy on high notes, a kind of mystique suggested. The sound washes over a listener in seductive waves.

The repertoire is heavy on representation of some jazz giants—Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat Adderley, Fats Waller—but the singer sounds just as much at home with Cole Porter’s classic lament “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” an old operetta warhorse gets an elegant veneer (“Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise”), and latter-day singer-songwriters are boldly embraced (Joni Mitchell’s “Fiddle and the Drum” and Jonatha Brooke’s “Because I Told You So”). The burnished vocal sound and immersion in atmosphere are front and center throughout. La Tanya Hall is the mistress of all she surveys, effective whether with all trio members going full steam ahead (and with guest trumpeter Michael Leonhart on two cuts) or in lengthy sections accompanied solely (or primarily) by the pulsing rhythms of bassist John Hebert or drummer Clarence Penn. Pianist Milne has some particularly attention-grabbing spotlight moments that find him “dancing” across the keys and creating images in powerful ways. Say Yes casts a special spell.

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