By Rob Lester, Broadway World
When I Googled “Catherine Russell” on my computer for the photo you see here, while trying to decide how to begin this review of her current Birdland blast of joy, my answer popped up, thanks to technology. I had only typed her first name when the “auto-complete” feature that presents suggested likely, popularly searched second words showed the option the computerized mind-reader jumped to, inviting my quick click. It guessed that I was probably looking for that royal of yore—Catherine The Great. That phrase works! Thanks, Mr. Google. The formidable, highly entertaining Ms. Russell is indeed up there with the tip-top commanding jazz singers of today. She even comes from musically royal blood with her dad, Luis Russell, having been a musician and songwriter who played with Louis Armstrong for years and her mom, Carline Ray, sang and played, too. The word “great” came up in her patter a great deal of the time during her set, as she time and again expressed the same adjective—“great”— in referring to those who had sung or written something she was about to jump into. Like many a jazz cat, this lady (whose nickname IS “Cat”) has another oft-employed word of choice: she refers to most songs not as “songs” but as “tunes.” But don’t let that fool you into thinking that she doesn’t bring plenty of attention to the lyrics. She has another habit–a helpful one for perspective — she announces the year most of the TUNES first appeared. She honors and seems to relish the history (and sharing it).
The show, named ALONE TOGETHER after the title ballad her excellent CD (her most recent) which was honored with a Grammy nomination (her most recent) and she and the album’s same band trotted out about half its material. And about half the performing time of these and others was given over to mid-song instrumental breaks. Her first-rate players dazzled with their talent and teamwork, obvious from the start with their own room-warmer instrumental, pre-C.R.’s entrance— “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me.” As she gave over the sound spotlight to the band, the singer apparently was digging their above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty work as much as the very attentive, very appreciative, and very full audience. Whether featured for a cheer-worthy chunk in an ever-shifting spotlight or in fuller-group “mass appeal,” each of seven men made a strong impact. Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso did many of the arrangements and guitarist Matt Munisteri is billed as musical director. They, along with Mark Shane on piano, John Allred on trombone, Evan Arntzen on sax, Mark McLean on drums, and Tal Ronen on bass all impressed mightily, with energy bouncing off each other, the walls, the ceiling, and the singer, absorbed and returned in kind by the appreciators in the house. It is, to be sure, a party. You couldn’t feel ALONE with the camaraderie and good vibes shared TOGETHER.
Catherine Russell has an affinity for not-quite-iconic material from the 1920s and ’30s, reinvigorating sizzling or cute or still-swingable stuff often otherwise neglected. Her sly and savvy manner when she first uttered the pointed title line of “You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew” drew a big laugh. Folks were invited to sing along with the key line “Make it do” in the Caribbean cutie with practical coping advice. Yes, folks were with her all the way. Speaking of that phrase, “All the Way” -that 1957 Frank Sinatrahit was late-in-the-set highlight, too — just right for Valentine’s week. And she and the band wrapped up with “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (and Dream Your Troubles Away)” to send us out and away to our homes wrapped up in the thought that, with little trouble, it’s no idle dream that we can cope and “make it do.” Equally good advice is to catch the catchy music of Catherine Russell and her band, playing at Birdland on West 44 Street through February 15 with two sets each night. And that’s a “Wrap…”.