Vocalist Catherine Russell released her seventh album as a leader, Alone Together, on March 1 via Dot Time Records. The album finds her searching for the truth concealed in the works of some of the best composers and lyricists of the Great American Songbook and the acclaimed songwriters of the Swing and R&B eras, alongside the core musicians of her touring band: guitar virtuoso and musical director Matt Munisteri, pianist Mark Shane, bassist Tal Ronen and drummer Mark McLean.
Alone Together was released on vinyl on July 26 and to mark the occasion, we asked Russell to take us through each of its tracks, to better understand the work that went into the making of the album.
The first time I heard it was on Judy Garland’s 1961 Live at Carnegie Hall recording and I always loved the lyrics. Lately, it seems to me that it’s a song of hope. If we stick together, we might overcome whatever is in front of us. I also love the melody and the chord changes, and I think it’s just a beautiful song.
“You Turned the Tables On Me”
I love the tune because it swings. I wasn’t necessarily drawn to it in the beginning because I couldn’t really personalize the story. But then, I went back to my memory. It reminded me of old relationships, and it’s also kinda funny. I just find the lyrics comical. I like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s duet recording, and Ella’s duet accompanied by Joe Pass on guitar.
“When Did You Leave Heaven?”
First, I heard Little Jimmy Scott’s version of that tune (I think I heard him sing it live, I heard him perform several times), then I heard Nancy Wilson’s version. Those are two of my favorite singers, two of the best vocalists in my opinion. Also, another vocalist friend of mine in the New York area sang it on every show that I’d seen her do. And it really makes me smile because it says, “Heaven must be missing an angel because you’re here with me.” I like that theme.
“Early in the Morning” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby”
We started doing both of those tunes in shows. We do them first for the audience, see how people react and then we might record them. Louis Jordan to me is just fun. Pure serious fun! I love that period of Rhythm & Blues. I like to see the people smiling and tapping their feet when they hear this type of tune.
“You Can’t Pull the Wool Over My Eyes”
I didn’t think about the song being timely today when I found it. I was just looking through the catalogs of Sy Oliver and Jimmie Lunceford tunes. This was originally done with Sy Oliver and the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra with a female vocalist named Myra Johnson. It is on a soundie, but I don’t think it’s on a 78 recording. I was looking for an up-tempo tune and the title appealed to me. I don’t use the music I choose as a political platform necessarily but this tune can apply to different situations, so it has a universal theme. It’s pointing a finger but in a fun musical context.
“Shake Down the Stars”
If I can’t have you here with me, I don’t want to see anything that reminds me of romance. The stars, the moon, the clouds… Anything. Another beautiful Jimmy Van Heusen/Eddie de Lange tune. I mean, it’s a great lyric and also a great melody and great chord changes, so I mixed the two versions of Frank and Ella. I also like irony in a lyric. Our lives are full of irony, so when I look for tunes, that’s sometimes what I look for in a lyric.
Louis Armstrong. I heard his version first. Then, I discovered Etta Jones’. I like the fact that this tune does not answer the question. It’s just, “I wonder.” I don’t know if you’re coming back to me, I don’t know where you are… like real life. The questions are just out there to be answered. We don’t know the answers to them, so this enables me to live through the lyric when I sing it. Beautiful tune.
“He May Be Your Dog But He’s Wearing My Collar”
Rosa Henderson was one of the many blues divas of the 1920s, one of my favorite periods of 20th-century music, starting with Bessie Smith, whom everybody’s heard of. But there are so many others that people have not heard of. I came upon this tune and I love the double entendre. We recorded Bessie Smith’s “Kitchen Man.” A friend of mine’s daughter, who was just a child at that point, just thought the song was about food. She wasn’t really old enough to get the full depth of the meaning, which I thought was hilarious. The story unfolds so people don’t know what the punch line is. I prefer not to announce the title of the tune before I sing it, so people get the punch lines as it progresses. It’s a little vignette, like a scene in a play. So, you can hopefully picture the woman that I’m talking about.
“Errand Girl for Rhythm”
I first heard vocalist Carol Sloane sing this tune at a gig with Bill Charlap and the lyric appealed to me. I was familiar with a lot of Nat Cole stuff but had never heard this tune. So, it’s fun and gives my band a chance to stretch out some. And it’s just fun to sing.
“How Deep Is the Ocean”
I love a lot of Irving Berlin’s tunes. That’s another tune with questions. We live with questions. And how much you love can be infinite, and it’s an open-ended emotion. The first thing that drew me is the lyric and melody, and I know I keep saying these things, but these are the elements that draw me to these tunes. And it’s also a more familiar tune, so we like to include some things that people have heard more. I like to dig for unknown and obscure things but there are also things that have been widely recorded that stand the test of time. So, this is one of those timeless tunes.
“I Only Have Eyes for You”
The Flamingos’ do-wop version is, I believe, the most popular version. I’ve always liked this lyric and people seem happy to hear it. The lyric seems to say that one can find their peace wherever they are. So, that’s what draws me to this tune. And it’s also the way the lyric is placed within the melody. The melody serves the lyric too. They work together beautifully. I like a good song craft.
“You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew”
You’re not the only fish in the sea… but you are the one for me. You have everything I need, “the very things I seek.” And the tune has that Fats Waller humor, even though he didn’t write it.
For more information on Catherine Russell and her new album, visit her online.
Featured photo by Sandrine Lee.
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