BDJF: catherine russell

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“You know I just go to my heroes, look through their catalogues…” So began tonight’s concert with Catherine Russell at the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival.

There did emerge a certain pattern after a little while, with Cat singing songs made famous by a select handful of folks from Peggy Lee to Jackie Wilson. Fats Waller and Dinah Washington were also repeat favorites through the evening.

The set began with the sassy, upbeat number We the People – a Depression-era Waller original from Russell’s most recent album, Inside This Heart of Mine (which takes its name from another Waller chart). It’s aged well. In fact the way things are these days, the song doesn’t seem to have aged at all. Its optimism is just as fresh and relevant as it ever was:

“We the People
Gotta have singin’, plenty of swingin’
Please the people and you will never go wrong.
We don’t give a rip about taxation
Long as legislators give the nation syncopation
We, the People
Have to keep happy, have to keep snappy
Gotta have rhythm and song.”

After that it was the slinky All the Cats Join In (same album), and a playful rendition of My Man’s An Undertaker – a Dinah Washington classic which had the packed house chuckling with Russell’s good-natured hamming all the way through. And the good tunes just kept on coming.

Cat’s charming, alright. A storyteller. A stylish singer who really loves the songs she’s singing, and she works with an ensemble that tastefully balances the brightness of her musical personality. The lineup includes pianist Mark Shane, bassist Lee Hudson, and, alternating on guitar and amplified banjo (!), Matt Munisteri.

Apart from her considerable ease of stage presence, at least equally impressive is the range and depth of her repertoire. When was the last time I heard anyone sing Harold Arlen songs (except for THAT one) live in concert? Tonight, listening to her sing Arlen’s beautiful, simple tune As Long As I Live I wanted to hear more songs from that era at the same time I was grateful just to hear that one. There is a notably thoughtful depth of scholarship that comes through in Catherine Russell’s sets.

Before stepping out on her own, the first part of her career was dedicated to touring extensively and performing with other artists including Bette Midler, David Bowie, Rosanne Cash, Al Green, Cyndi Lauper, and Steely Dan. As a result Cat mentioned having come to a solo career later in her life, with her first solo recording being released just five years ago. Since then she’s been on a regular schedule of releasing albums every couple of years. The next one (just finished recording yesterday, she said!) will be released early next year.

I really enjoyed tonight’s concert, mostly for being able to get that extra dimension of understanding a live experience brings to music. It’s one thing to hear Cat sing these songs on her album; it’s quite another to see her acting them out and infusing life into them through her affectionate interactions with the other musicians.

Sometimes I wonder what performers think when they come here and it’s so quiet as they’re pouring their hearts and souls out on stage. This evening’s typically polite Vermont audience let the band do its thing for the most part, withholding most spontaneous outbursts during each number, but showed its appreciation with generous applause after each one.

It was well deserved.

This one’s from 1946, Benny Goodman’s own version of All The Cats Join In:

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