Catherine Russell: An Artist Prepares

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Russell’s ability to captivate an audience is a well-honed craft.

(Photo: Sandrine Lee)

The energy at New York’s Birdland felt restless and distracted. When the band started playing “Honeysuckle Rose,” entire tables lifted up their phones. Some rose from their seats to find a better angle. But as Catherine Russell entered the room, the mood shifted. Listeners listened. Between bursts of applause, even the bar fell silent.

Russell’s ability to captivate an audience is a well-honed craft. The two-time Grammy-nominated singer and bandleader has spent years exploring the music, internalizing the subtle ways compositional and lyrical choices often enhance one another. She loves her repertoire the way great novelists love their characters. But she lives for the discoveries. Mining what’s magical about each song, she finds new ways to transmit that magic night after night.

Now releasing her eighth album, Send For Me (Dot Time Records), Russell has performed at famed venues from SFJAZZ to Carnegie Hall, and toured with legendary acts like Cyndi Lauper, Carrie Smith, David Bowie and Steely Dan. After a six-night run at Birdland, she paused to share her thoughts on personal vision and peer input, crafting a set list that serves her expression and her own years-long experience with anxiety and self-doubt.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

You’re a proponent of preparation as a vehicle for spontaneity.

Absolutely. My time on stage is completely consumed with making music and having a good time. If my mind is full of, “Did I do this? Did I do that?” then I’m not present. So preparation, for me, is everything.

How has the practice of thorough preparation informed your artistic intention for each of your studio releases, and has your understanding of what it means to feel prepared evolved?

Before we go in to record, I have everything prepared — except in one instance, which was the tune “Going Back To New Orleans.” We normally record everything in three days, with everyone in the same room. But I decided to add horns to “In The Night,” so we [scheduled] a separate recording session. Then, I had the idea of breaking down “Going Back To New Orleans” to just a few instruments. That was a separate session. So, I actually had five sessions. But I contemplated it all before we went in. I also talk to my guitarist Matt [Munisteri] a lot; he helps me with concept. I have a couple horn arrangers that help me with what we’re going to reference for different types of horn parts. So, over the years, my prep has solidified as a result of the people that I’m working with. When I first started out, I didn’t have horn arrangers. I was just writing plain arrangements — beginnings, middles and ends — and then going in and playing them.

You actually found a live version of your father, Luis Russell, and his orchestra playing his arrangement of “At The Swing Cats Ball.” What about that arrangement resonated with you, and how did you and Mark Lopeman go about adapting it to sound like a song that was written for your personal sound?

There’s no studio recording of [that song] by my father’s orchestra. Somebody put a recording machine by the stage on a gig one night and got most of the performance. The beginning of it is clipped, but they come back to that horn figure. [sings the figure] The one you hear in the beginning. Mark and I said, “If they did this in the middle, that’s probably what they did in the beginning. So let’s write it out like that because we’ll never actually know.” It’s cool because it’s a six-bar thing. And the way the swing pocket felt resonated with me. It’s the way I like to swing. Louis Jordan’s version is faster. His versions of things, a lot of times, are faster. And he put drum hits in his arrangement which I didn’t really care for, personally. I also really liked the vocalist on my father’s recording. To me, it just sounds like everybody was enjoying themselves immensely.

You first heard “Make It Last” on a Betty Carter recording from 1958. Her choices on this particular recording really spotlight the beauty of that chord progression. Would you discuss that repertoire selection and, more broadly, what truly excites you when you find a new song for your band to explore together?

Betty Carter’s performances resonated with me because I just love what she does with phrasing, how she draws out a lyric. A friend of mine, who has been sending me tunes for years, sent me that recording. That tune, I find she sings differently. The melody is very simple. And I love the sentiment of the lyric. The way Melba Liston arranged it, it’s so fluid, like a waterfall around Betty Carter’s voice. You kind of don’t know where one chord ends and the next begins, some horns extend over the bar line and others don’t really resolve together — it’s beautiful. It reminded me of [Alexander] Scriabin, or [Charles] Mingus where you can hear the individual horns sometimes. The [song’s] two bridges have slightly different changes, and that’s intriguing. What excites me about finding these tunes is: a) I’ve never heard anybody else do them, or one or two people have done them; and, b) the chord structure is something that musicians can bite into. I don’t do a lot of ballads because I like my set to be more on the upbeat side. But somewhere in the set, we can bring it down a little bit and have that vocabulary as well, which demands that I sing that differently.

When people talk about vocabulary, frequently they’re referencing lyric-less improvising, instrumental or vocal. Your improvising holds steadfast to the story you’re telling through the lyrics. How do you view your vocabulary development through the music’s expansive lineage?

When I listen to what you can do with words and phrases, I go back to Louis Armstrong because he was such a master. Where I connect to jazz and vocal improvisation is through the story. I’ve tried wordless improvisation. “Cat, take a chorus!” … “OK!” And then it’s like, uh … yeah … I don’t really have the horn solo vocabulary in my body. My improvising thing is more rhythmic. I’m definitely based in rhythm as opposed to melodic improvising on different scales. I really respect that art form, being able to spell out chords with wordless improvisation, being able to anticipate the changes in a wordless improvisation. That’s not really my forte. [laughs] At first, years ago, I would compare myself and say, “Oh, I’m not as versed in vocal improvising because I can’t do ‘shoobedobedo’ like other people I admire.” But what I can do is base that in rhythm.

Speaking of rhythm as a grounding element, would you discuss the musical relationship between your mother — bassist and multi-instrumentalist Ms. Carline Ray — and the great Ruth Brown, the impact witnessing that dynamic had on you as a young person and how that impact has lasted?

My mother admired and respected all the many artists that she worked with. And she thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed working with Ruth Brown. Miss Brown was just a lovely person and I felt so great around her. She was like a mentor and an auntie. I loved going to her performances and seeing my mother able to support her, musically. The two of them would just be smiling. And the music felt great. I loved the way Ruth Brown could sing a standard and then she could turn right around and sing some gut-bucket blues in the next song, and then sing rhythm and blues. And I knew, at that point, the differences. We’re getting back to vocabulary. Ruth Brown was the great thread through all of those genres — and was one of the pioneers of what she was doing, which was mixing jazz and blues and rhythm and blues. For several years, I’d been working around New York but not putting my own shows together. So I would go see her and say, “Oh, you can do that. I can sing ‘Here’s That Rainy Day’ and then turn around and sing some gut-bucket blues right after that and it’ll be OK.” She was such a great entertainer. I got to see Alberta Hunter many times, as well. And the thing that appealed to me about the two of them is the different kinds of music they could bring together — and it all made sense.

You studied the ways they crafted their sets.

Yes. I like to start with something that invites the people in, so they know, “OK, we can relax and have a good time now.” Then I might go into some blues, “Send For Me,” Nat “King” Cole blues, for example. Then, sometimes a Fats Waller tune, mostly the funny tunes in his catalog so the people get to laugh. Down the road a few more tunes, I’ll do another uptempo tune like “At The Swing Cats Ball.” Maybe then it’s time for a ballad. Then I’ll bring it up to something medium-tempo, “East Of The Sun” or “You Turned The Tables On Me.” My vocal technique is lighter in that context, as opposed to the real fast stuff, which is a different vocal technique. And the blues is a different vocal technique. I like to give the people a variety so that they know that I understand the different techniques of my own vocal performance.

You launched your now-thriving career as a leader in 2006, after you had toured the world with many artists, adding to those influences you encountered as a small child. What advice do you have for young artists working in today’s persistent release-oriented landscape?

It’s so different nowadays. There’s so much pressure on young people to prove this and to prove that. When I was coming up in New York, there were a lot of places to play. You could develop your thing. It didn’t have to be perfect. You could explore things — play here Monday night, play somewhere else Tuesday night. There’s no substitute for really developing your craft, your performance skills, how to work with a band on stage, how to perform original repertoire in front of people. The young people I know that are developing in a healthy way are people who get out there a lot.

Otherwise, you’re not going to know how to deal with different situations: monitors that don’t work, sound people who can’t give you the attention you need. Get as much experience as you can get. The young people that are in school whom I perform with, they play a lot. They take all kinds of the gigs. My trumpet player John Eric Kelso gave me a whole list of names when he could not [play that Saturday night at Birdland]. And I thought, “Let me try this young woman [Summer Camargo].” First of all, she’s a female trumpet player, and I connect to that. Let’s try her out and see what happens. And she was a total pro. Came in less than 24 hours after I called her, [learned] the material and led the horn section. Twenty years old. You can go in a studio and turn knobs and tweak things to sound the way you want, but that has nothing to do with live performance. Sometimes you won’t get a favorable response. That’s part of the learning process. So you have to be able to take all that in, as well.

Throughout your development, you struggled with forms of depression and anxiety, imposter syndrome. Are you still managing those mental-emotional phases? Do you have strategies for addressing them when they emerge while you’re in the studio or out on the road?

Interesting that you would bring that up because, yes. You don’t know where these things come from, really. The first 11 years of my life, I did not have stage fright. I didn’t struggle with feeling less than others. I felt fine in my body. I didn’t look in the mirror and hate myself. I danced, and I loved dancing. I embraced it. Then, puberty hit. I started feeling ugly. Nervous. Like I couldn’t perform, like I didn’t wanna be the center of attention. Would I ever be good at anything? Mind you, I was looking at my mother’s Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music degrees on the wall. And my mother was also physically beautiful. She always told me I looked like my dad, so I thought, “I look like a man. I don’t look like a girl.” In my teen years, I wanted to be high a lot. So that’s what I did, just to relax. I was very nervous. I put on weight. I just didn’t feel good. If there was a kid that liked me, I thought that there was something wrong with him.

I was always going to group therapy to discover what was wrong with me: “Why do I feel like this?” That lasted until I went to acting school. I was living in California and was accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts West Coast campus, but they wanted me to audition for the New York school. That’s how I got back to New York City. That started to change my life. I was a two-time high school dropout, and when I got into this school, I said, “This is what’s going to save me.” And it did.

But I was still having issues of stage fright — being nauseous, feeling tingly in my fingers, not being able to stay present. A friend of mine told me about an acting teacher who teaches meditation to clear out your mind so that you can take on a character. I studied with him for 10 straight years and got all of the poison out of me. Now, I look forward to my performances. I don’t have this gripping terror of, “I don’t know if I can do this!” I know I can do it, and I know I can have fun doing it. It doesn’t matter when it happens or how long it takes. It matters that you have the tools to deal with yourself.

Let’s pivot back to the studio. This is your sixth leader recording with Katherine Miller at the engineering and production helm, alongside your co-producer Paul Kahn. What draws you to her expression, and how has that relationship developed over time?

Around 2009, Todd Barkan gave me an [Ernestine Anderson] album one night and said, “Here, listen to this.” So [Paul and I] put the album on and said, “Wait a second. This sounds amazing. Who is the recording engineer?” It was Katherine Miller. The vocal sound, the instruments, everything sounded round and rich. The range of sound was even — the highs, the mids, the low-ends — it sounded like you were in the room. So we got in touch. She’s a no-drama human being: she comes in, gets down to business and we get to work. We work at a nice pace, and she can also be very honest with me. She’ll say, “You’re tired. I’m not getting anything out of you, take a break.” Last year, I had bought a microphone and we tried it on a session; she said, “The problem with that mic is it’s high-endy. Your voice is already high-endy. We need to bring out the warmth in your voice as opposed to highlighting one area of it.” She hooks everything up.

What, if anything, do you hope listeners will receive from Send For Me, both in studio release and live performance contexts?

I want the listener to have an enjoyable experience. I want the listener to get some history and hear songs by people whose names they haven’t heard so they may go and check out these other artists and their music. A gentleman this past week told me, “You know I heard you sing this song, and I had not heard that song before and now I’m singing it.” That’s the best compliment to the material that I can imagine. Go out and do the songs. Let’s keep them out there. DB



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