Singer Catherine Russell could make her job look harder than she does. As a subtle but expressive jazz and blues vocalist, Russell communicates more through restraint than flashy histrionics. Perhaps she takes her time with a song simply because she also has taken her time making a musical career despite being born into the music business.
Russell’s father, Louis Russell, was a jazz musician in the music genre’s formative days, playing piano with cornet player King Oliver before starting a band that was taken over by Louis Armstrong in the mid-1930s. The elder Russell later became an arranger and musical director for Armstrong.
Songs from Russell and Armstrong’s years together form the core of Catherine Russell’s new album, “Bring It Back,” and will highlight her upcoming performance at Harlow’s next Friday. Her longtime trio is Matt Munisteri on guitar, Mark Shane on piano and Tal Ronen on bass.
Russell’s mother, Carline Ray, was also an accomplished musician, with degrees from the Julliard and Manhattan schools of music. Ray performed in the 1940s with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and with the legendary pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, among others. Even though Russell grew up listening to her dad’s recordings and going to recording sessions with her mother, she didn’t immediately jump into the family business.
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“I was shy, and I grew up thinking I’ll never be as good as they are or be able to excel in this,” Russell said from New York City, where she was born and still lives.
Though she worked in electronics and theater facility management, music was an undeniable constant in Russell’s life. Around the house were her grandfather’s mandolin, her mother’s guitars and her father’s keyboards, which she played around with, teaching herself how to make music.
“Music made me feel like I was accomplishing something, like there was something I could get better at,” Russell said.
As she got older Russell also had an invaluable real-world training ground that doesn’t much exist anymore: nightclubs with live bands.
“When I was first trying to get gigs, I sang every night,” said Russell, 58.
“I was on stage some place, it didn’t matter if they were paying me, not paying me. I was writing musical charts and putting tunes together to see what style I was best-suited for.”
Russell said there’s nothing like an audience to tell you what’s working and what’s not.
“You can tell polite clapping from enthusiasm, so you know right away what’s happening and what you should pursue,” she said. “It’s the type of stuff that can only happen from doing it, stumbling and falling and learning, how can I improve on that?”
The blues and older soul songs received the best response. Now people tell her she’s a blues singer who sings jazz.
“A lot of lyrics that I pick are based in the blues, especially the slower ones,” Russell said.
“I like slow, romantic things that I can sing freely. Blues seems to me to be so much personal interpretation of melody, and it’s not a strict thing.”
But the blues are different things to different people, and Russell’s sense of the music comes with her personal knowledge of musical history. She’s made five solo albums, beginning with “Cat” in 2006. Her albums have been critically applauded and have sold well. She’s been extremely popular in Europe, winning numerous awards there. In 2012 she won a Grammy Award for her appearance on the soundtrack album for the HBO Series “Boardwalk Empire.”
“With the first album, my original idea was string-band swing,” Russell said. “It was vintage swing music tunes with good lyrics, melodies and nice chord changes done with mandolins, violins and accordions.”
As her recording career evolved, arrangers started bringing her charts, and her musicians wrote some as well.
“It’s the same basic theme of the roots of swing, jazz and blues, with nice arrangements. I look for good lyrics and good stories so that every time I sing the tune it remains fresh to me,” Russell said.
“When I start to sing it, I am secondary to the tune itself, the melody and the words, the message of the tune. I’m also listening to the musicians, and I’m being influenced by what I’m hearing around me. I appreciate great singers, people with technical skills and that kind of stuff, but I’m looking for what they’re saying, apart from all the skill.”
When Russell eventually did leap into professional music, she began working as a vocalist for hire with artists including Paul Simon, Cyndi Lauper, Rosanne Cash, David Bowie and numerous tours with Steely Dan. Now that Russell leads her own group, the demands are more personal.
“What I had to really get used to is that my name is on the ticket,” Russell said.
“People can do anything they want with their evening, but if they’re coming to see you, you’ve got to deliver,” Russell said. “It’s like I’m hosting the party and I’ve got to give them a good party.”