(World Village/Harmonia Mundi)
As a backup singer for Steely Dan, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Madonna and many others, Catherine Russell has performed nearly every style of contemporary pop and rock. But when she finally embarked on a solo career at age 50, the vocalist decided to interpret the early jazz of her parents’ era. With her fourth release, Russell continues to mine the back pages of the Great American Songbook with class and verve.
Russell’s renditions of once-popular songs may be so heartfelt because the tunes are practically family heirlooms. Her father, Luis Russell, was a seminal jazzman and Louis Armstrong’s bandleader in the ’30s and ‘40s. Her mother, Carline Ray, played bass and sang with Mary Lou Williams and the all-female International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
Strictly Romancin’ consists mostly of forgotten love songs from 1920 through 1950. Less string-band-oriented than Russell’s initial releases, the album features 11 musicians, including longtime collaborator Matt Munisteri on guitar and banjo, ace swing pianist Mark Shane and four horn players. Russell’s singing is velvety and vivacious, and her arrangements capture the essence of the old tunes without seeming antiquated. Her enunciation is crystal clear and the music swings with easy elegance.
Best tracks include an emotive version of Lil Green’s bluesy “Romance in the Dark,” Hoagy Carmichael’s atmospheric “Ev’ntide,” and Mary Lou Williams’ bouncy tribute to Louis Armstrong, “Satchel Mouth Baby.”
Russell’s biography is hardly typical. As a teen, she lived in a California commune and later followed the Grateful Dead. She danced professionally at the Metropolitan Opera, acted on and off Broadway, resided in France during the ’70s, and worked as a faculty member at Berklee. Somehow, her varied experiences have shaped her into one of the most inspired purveyors of traditional jazz today, as Strictly Romancin’ validates.
— Ed Kopp