Singer Catherine Russell discovers there’s no rest for the weary
Catherine Russell’s life and style encompass the spectrum of American music. So it’s little surprise that her latest album, “Inside This Heart of Mine,” is a veritable history lesson, albeit seasoned with her contemporary spice.
But don’t expect to hear someone who’s stuck in the past. Just last week Russell appeared on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” to harmonize with Shelby Lynne and Peter Wolf on “Tragedy,” a cut from Wolf’s latest album.
She’s also sung with Cyndi Lauper, Roseanne Cash, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Jackson Browne, and David Bowie, among others. She’s been featured in guitarist Jimmy Vivino’s Little Big Band, as well as Donald Fagen’s New York Rock ‘n’ Soul Revue.
Somehow, she even found time to give voice lessons at Boston’s Berklee College of Music from 2001 to 2004.
Russell comes by her versatility naturally. Her dad was Luis Russell, who was Louis Armstrong’s bandleader for many years. Her mother was Carline Ray, an accomplished jazz bassist who worked with pianist Mary Lou Williams and Wynton Marsalis.
One of Russell’s most recent accolades was her guest spot on Levon Helm’s Grammy-winning album, “Electric Dirt,” on which she sings “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”
“I’m very happy about that,” Russell said from her New York City home. “We recorded that track on a snowy day in January or February last year. (Producer) Larry Campbell called and asked me to drive up, so I drove up to Woodstock in the middle of this snowstorm. But I love Levon and it is incredible to be asked to record on one of his albums.”
Russell has now sung on the last three Peter Wolf albums, and considers the Boston rocker a close friend. She hadn’t worked with Lynne before the Fallon show, however, and found it to be a revelation.
“I love having the kind of job where I can constantly meet and make music with people like that. I love my life.”
Russell is gracious about her success.
“I was mainly into rock growing up, but I was a big Steely Dan fan, and now I’ve performed with them for 20 years. It’s the same with David Bowie, Boz Scaggs, Peter Wolf. To actually meet and make music with these idols you had is something very thrilling.”
Russell said she is on a mission to encourage casual fans to explore the roots of contemporary music.
Her new album includes covers of classics from the 1920s to the present by such giants as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Peggy Lee, Howlin’ Wolf, and her father, Luis.
The tune from Luis Russell’s vast repertoire is “Slow As Molasses,” and the unusual thing is that his version was instrumental.
“So many of my father’s songs were instrumentals,” Russell said. “We’re doing a program in San Antonio at the end of May focusing on Luis Russell material, and also his work with Louis Armstrong. Researching for that gave us access to this song, a great instrumental. My friend, Rachelle Garniez, is a fabulous lyricist, and she came up with some words for it. That’s how most of my work comes about, organically, as we listen to the music and figure out how we can adapt it for ourselves.”
The new disc also includes the Armstrong cut “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” which Russell delivers with the right amount of Satchmo verve.
“I could listen to Louis Armstrong all day long,” said Russell.
Russell also chose to include a rarely heard ballad from the Ellington catalog, “Close Your Eyes.”
“I like music that swings, and lyrics that tell a story,” said Russell. “I really wanted to go deep into the whole Duke Ellington catalog, and I really had a good time exploring that music. The best part of finding songs like this for my solo records is that it always teaches me so much.”
With her busy schedule, Russell said it was hard finding the time to record “Inside This Heart of Mine.”
“I am on the road so much it was tough,” Russell said with a hearty laugh. “The Steely Dan tour was extended two months last summer, which was great, but not anticipated. ... When we got a break on the Steely Dan tour, we went in and did it all in three days, before my Brazil tour started. We just cut all these tunes all the way through, which is the easiest way for me. If I have too much time I start nitpicking.”
Jay N. Miller covers music for The Patriot Ledger.