Album Reviews

Catherine Russell

Harlem on My Mind

Artist:     Catherine Russell

Album:     Harlem on My Mind

Label:     Jazz Village

Release Date:     09/09/2016


It was inevitable that Catherine Russell would make this record. The daughter of famed bandleader Luis Russell, who arranged for Louis Armstrong, and the late Carline Ray, noted vocalist/guitarist/bassist who played with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and Sy Oliver, grew up with this music. Russell says, “My mother was born and raised in Harlem and my father led one of the leading orchestras in Harlem which was part of my inspiration for the album.”  She adds, “The album is comprised of songs from artists who played at The Apollo in Harlem, where all African-American artists of note appeared.”  As I’ve said in previous reviews of Russell’s work, nobody else makes records like these today.  We have tributes to greats like Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, but usually they have some modern touches.  Nobody has the musicologist knack for capturing the best music of the twenties through fifties and make it sound so vital and so true to its origins.  This is Russell’s sixth release as a leader, none before the age of fifty. As on her 2014 release Bring It Back, Russell alternates between her road-tested quintet and a full horn section (tentet) with many of the same players, including arranger/saxophonist Andy Farber.

It would be difficult to find a singer of Russell’s caliber in terms of range, versatility, emotion, and unerring phrasing.   That is why she is so highly sought after for major events and tours as a back-up singer, be it Steely Dan, Paul Simon, the recent tribute to David Bowie at the 2016 Brit Awards, the 2016 NEA Jazz Masters Award Ceremony, or most recently, William Bell’s new album.  But, jazz and blues are her true love and she continues in her fine tradition of work with Jazz Village.  Here she begins with Irving Berlin’s title track, does the stirring ballad “The Very Thought of You,” and Fats Waller’s “Blue Turning Grey Over You.”  Russell usually includes a salacious bluesy tune on her albums, hence “You’ve Got the Right Key But the Wrong Keyhole.”  Interestingly, “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” features a guest appearance by tenor saxophonist Fred Staton, of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, who was 100-years-old at the time of recording.  You would never guess that from his smooth Lester Young-like soloing.  As with all of her releases, you will recognize many of the tunes as standards while others are far more obscure.  She is tapping into the golden age of Harlem, a deep journey into the bluesy jazz of the African-American songbook. The bar is set higher for each of Russel’s releases, and she nails it once again.

Look out for Russell’s tour as she will be appearing at various jazz festivals and venues this fall.  During December she will be the guest vocalist with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis for Big Band Holidays in various cities

– Jim Hynes


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