Her father, Luis Russell, was the pioneering pianist and bandleader and long-time musical director for Louis Armstrong and her mother, Carline Ray, is a renowned bassist, vocalist, and an icon for women in jazz. So it isn’t surprising that New Yorker Catherine “Cat” Russell
’s newest record, Inside This Heart Of Mine
, has topped a number of jazz charts, since its release in April 2010. But what is interesting is that Russell, in her 50s, has earned her place in jazz after a long, diverse, and eclectic career in music that featured a long-term gig with David Bowie’s band, collaborations with Cyndi Lauper and Paul Simon, and a longstanding love of classic rock bands like The Grateful Dead and The Band. I sat down with her for an interview during JazzAscona, before she started her daily routine of yoga, vocal practice, and band rehearsal.
This is your first time at JazzAscona. Have you been enjoying the festival so far?
Oh, yes! We’ve been here two nights and it’s been wonderful so far. I’ve been to Switzerland many times in the past 20 years, but I’d never been to Ascona and it’s a beautiful place. Also, I’m with my bigger band, this time. Usually I travel with my trio, made up of Mark Shane on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, and Matt Munisteri on guitar and banjo, but this time I also have Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Dan Block on tenor saxophone and clarinet, and James Wormworth on drums. I’ve done many gigs with James over 20 years, but he recently moved to Los Angeles because he’s part of the band that plays on the new Conan O’Brien TV show. People here are very receptive to the music, snapping their fingers and getting up to dance. That’s a great compliment to me! A wonderful thing about festivals is that you get to hear other great musicians, and you get to jam together and make beautiful connections. Yesterday, for example, I heard George Washingmachine from Australia, and he’s fantastic! We walked around the piazza and sat to have an espresso and heard so much great music. People in Europe enjoy their jazz a lot. In the U.S. there might be more of a modern jazz inclination, whereas here I think there is a larger traditional jazz audience.
Could you tell us more about your latest CD, Inside This Heart Of Mine, which features songs from the 1920s to the present?
“Inside This Heart Of Mine” is a Fats Waller song that nobody else outside of him, I believe, recorded. That song was in a compilation that was only released recently, as was “We The People”. We also have some Duke Ellington material from the 1930s, a Willie Dixon blues piece, and a few songs from The American Songbook, such as “As Long As I Live”, which is a Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler tune from 1934. “Close Your Eyes” is another tune I heard from an Arthur Prysock recording with the Count Basie Orchestra from the 1950s, and then we do a song called “Just Because You Can”, which is a new song written by a great contemporary composer and lyricist, called Rachelle Garniez, who writes in the old style. When I’m looking for material, I look for material that sounds like it was written in the 20s, 30s or 40s but is actually new. This tune she wrote with me in mind, which is a great compliment.
How did you choose these thirteen songs, with so many great standards out there?
I listen to music in my car, I listen at home in the kitchen while washing dishes, I borrow albums from friends, and that’s how I find material—washing dishes after dinner at night [she laughs]. “Close Your Eyes”, for example, was a tune my brother had recorded from the radio when we were growing up. My musicians suggest songs to me, too. I generally look for pieces that haven’t been recorded much recently, and also important is how a lyric hits me: if I like the story, I’m attracted to the tune and I want to learn it. “You go to my head/ And you linger like a haunting refrain”, from “You Go To My Head”, is almost like getting intoxicated by a person. The imagery of that lyric is beautiful and the story in that song is that the person is not in love with you… The person singing is infatuated, but the bridge is: “The thrill of the thought/ That you might give a thought/ To my plea/ Casts a spell over me/ Though I say to myself/ Get a hold of yourself/ Can’t you see that it never can be”. That’s what I like about this, that’s it’s just like real life: you don’t always get what you want! [she laughs]
I read you used to be a big Grateful Dead fan, and you also worked with pop and rock stars such as David Bowie, Cindy Lauper, Steely Dan, and Paul Simon. How does this fit in with what you’ve been doing lately?
I was a fan of the Grateful Dead music for many years and was friends with people who worked with them. I was actually asked to tour with them this year, but because of my own shows I wasn’t able to join them. I like many types of music and all of them inform the way I sing. Right now I’m a jazz singer, but I also love blues and rock ‘n’ roll, both of which sometimes find their way into my singing.
What is it like to find the kind of success you’re having?
Well, it’s a surprise! I’m very grateful that people love the music that I love to sing and record, but like many things in life, you never know.
You mentioned in a recent interview with JazzAscona artistic director Nicolas Gilliet that you’ve been a freelance for so long, you can’t stop doing different things. Is your success as a soloist pushing you more in one direction?
It is because I’m really having a great time doing early jazz and swing and travelling to different places, such as Ascona, and meeting different people. My freelance career was very important to me and still is, and I don’t think I’d be having so much fun doing my own thing had I not been freelancing for so many years and travelling and learning about touring. That prepared me to do this. But freelancing and being a back-up singer is a completely different life and completely different set of skills than being a band leader and lead singer. It’s a different style of music, you have to know different things, wear different clothing, and perform differently. Both of these lifestyles are very valuable to me in terms of what I learn and how I get to express myself. Freelancing led me to work with many people I’m a fan of and admire—and that, too, is a great career.
What are your future plans?
I would like to continue freelancing where the time allows, even though scheduling is an issue. As a soloist, my mission is to make a new record at least every two years, so I’m already gathering material for the next one. I don’t know what it will be yet. Usually I gather material and add it to the show. If we enjoy it and the audience enjoys it, I include it in the record. I like to do things that people respond to. Playing live is very important and the direct connection with the audience is a crucial sounding-board.
Catherine Russell will be playing at JazzAscona again tonight at 11 p.m. on stage Seven and tomorrow, Wednesday, June 30, at 8.30 p.m. on stage Chiesa.
(La traduzione in italiano di questo articolo è stata pubblicata sul Corriere del Ticino, il 30 giugno 2010.)