ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — For jazz lovers in Rochester, they can get an early listen to a Rochester favorite, Catherine Russell. The Rochester International Jazz Festival is hosting a March 15 concert with Russell, at the Theater at Innovation Square.
Tickets start at $30, and are now on sale and can be found here, and will also be available at the door. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
Russell is known as one of the leading modern interpreters of early jazz, from the 1920s into the 1940s, and is a fan favorite at the RIJF, filling Harro East and Kilbourn Hall over the years, and her sound is steeped in history:
Catherine Russell is a native New Yorker born into musical royalty. Her father, the late Luis Russell, was a legendary pianist/composer/bandleader, and Louis Armstrong’s long-time musical director. Her mother, Carline Ray, was a pioneering vocalist/guitarist/bassist who performed with International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Mary Lou Williams, and Sy Oliver.
Here’s our 1-on-1 with singer Catherine Russell, lightly edited for length and clarity:
You’re on a nice spring tour here, the weather in Rochester and most of New York… I bet it’s good to be on the road. Talk to me a little bit about this tour you’re on?
We always promote any album that we’re doing or have done. So it’s continuous. We do the new stuff, we do some of the old stuff, and we try to go back to places that we’ve been so that we stay connected.
Talk to me about this new release you have coming out in April.
It’s called “Send For Me,” the theme is a jazz and blues theme as usual. And it’s just a collection of songs that I like and have been trying out. So if I try them out, and I get a positive response, then I record them; then we go on from there. It’s kind of a rolling thing. People like something, then I continue to do it.
2006 was the first solo album, and you spent a lot of time working as a, you know, as someone as a backup singer. What did you learn from your time working as a backup singer collaborating with all these musicians?
I’m still a backup singer, I work with Steely Dan. So very proud to say that.
I learned more about the road, I learned more about what goes into touring smoothly, how you have to take care of yourself; and the way that we take care of whoever it is we’re working for. So we want them to be as comfortable as possible, so that they can do their show without worrying about us. Our job as backup singers is to take care of them.
So I would say that my time as a solo artist has only strengthened my appreciation and my grounding as a human being and as a backup singer… So each one kind of feeds the other one.
I wanted to ask about your longtime collaborator, collaborator, guitarist Matt Munisteri. He’s someone you’ve worked with for a really long time. Talk to us about your relationship working with Matt, where did it come from? And what’s it like having him at your side for all these solo projects?
A friend of mine had recommended Matt to me. And this was probably 2004 or 2005, something like that, as someone that was steeped in a lot of traditions, all kinds of traditions rock, soul, blues, jazz, all kinds.
So I basically pursued him for gigs until he was able to work with me. I went to his gigs, and I say, “hi, how you doing?” And so, when he was finally free to work with me, then he recorded with me, and that was the second album, “Sentimental Streak.”
He basically started arranging immediately, because he’s very good with beginnings and endings. He knows so many vocabularies. We get along very well, it’s been really fantastic. He’s definitely one of my backbones, as far as the sound of the music, and the direction of the music. He also stands up when he plays, so that’s good for me.
He has helped me a great deal with finding other musicians that are into traditional styles of music, and classic styles of music, (those) who also are knowledgeable in the blues and all the stuff that we do. So he helps me continually.
You had this great quote: “anything that swings is what you like to do.” What does it mean when something swings to you, and why is this something you want to perform yourself?
Rhythm is something I’ve always latched to. I’m half Panamanian, and grew up listening to very rhythmic music. And my father’s music was very rhythmic, it swung hard. And swing is really where I find my grounding. So when when the music swings, and I know where I can put my voice, there’s a place to put it. And when it doesn’t, then I don’t know where to put it.
It also makes people tap to their feet, clap their hands, and feel like — even if they aren’t dancing, even if there’s not a dance floor — they feel like (they’re) moving.
It’s good time music. It’s the most inspiring to me when it comes to jazz.
Another really unique way that you communicate musically is by using humor. A lot of that kind of whimsy is in old-school music as well. Some innuendo, too, of course. Is that something you ever had to work on? Is that something that came naturally to you, using humor in the music to communicate?
I think it’s grown over the years, because I’ve become more comfortable with myself. And also the material brings that out of me. So I like to choose that kind of thing.
I just feel like it’s about us, not about me, and then you are out there. It’s so important on the stage that, it’s about (getting) together. We need levity, we need positive energy, because there’s so much negative energy going on… We don’t even have to talk about that.
When people come to a show, they want to forget their troubles. People have told me, “I was so tired, I didn’t even know if I wanted to do this, but now I have energy, I have to come into the show.” This is a way to just bring us together and just break the walls down. Whatever your differences or whatever place we come from, we can come together through music.
Those old songs are so well-written, to me, that it’s just a way really to break the ice. I always like to include that so that we can laugh a little bit, so that when the people leave, they will have laughed a little bit.
I respect performers who are very serious, I respect that. But that’s never going to be me. I just got to be who you are. I just want to have a good time.
Watch the full interview here:
You present these old songs like they are very new and they’re fresh. How do you do that with material that’s coming up on a century old?
The themes are universal. When we’re talking about, Kitchen Man, (the Bessie Smith tune)… I don’t know how many women have come up to me afterward and said, “This is my kitchen man! This is my husband, he’s my kitchen man!”
So the themes are universal, and they’re timeless. I have to pick songs that I can live through, so I can live through the lyric of that tune, I can live through a song…
And so we all can come together on that on those stories, you know, so that’s a well written to, for me that that’s a well-written song, something that’s timeless, and the themes are universal. So if they resonate, they resonate.
This one’s kind of a layup. You’re back out there, you’re playing shows live, how does it feel?
It feels great, it feels natural, it feels like coming home. Many of us spent the last few years — it’s a good thing to technology was what it was — but we were looking into camera lenses. I was saying, “if I look at that camera lens, is that the people?”
It was interesting, and then I’d have the few staff people in the room clapping, at the end of a tune, so you have an audience of two or three.
We did the best we could, but there’s, there’s nothing like being in the room with human beings, having a three-dimensional experience with people, (having) a real-time response from people. A lot of people, I’m happy to say, did support virtual programming, because that’s what, that’s what we had. And it was very important to do that, and important for the people that were presenting it.
One of the good things that has come out of this period of time is that then people in Japan or people all over the world can see you, and you can connect a little more with them; which opens up opportunities for work in different places.
You’re at the point in your career where I’m sure you can decide where you want to go — to some extent anyway — but you keep finding your way back here. What about Rochester makes you want to keep back and keep playing here?
Rochester was probably the first I would say one of the first places that really opened our open their hearts to us when we came there. That goes back to 2006, maybe 2007… 2007 My husband’s telling me 2007, and he knows he’s always right. And that was the first place we played a little club. I couldn’t believe that people — this sounds funny — but I couldn’t believe that people were actually waiting to come in. They’re standing outside the doors until they opened, and then people stayed for both shows.
Every time we have played at Rochester, I feel like (they know who I am). The people are just so excited and enthusiastic. It’s really a joy to play for the Rochester audience.
Rochester has really helped me (builds) that audience, and to build my career as far as a following. And knowing that validation of knowing that “okay, we are doing something here, you know that people are actually going to come out here, that you don’t know, right?”
I’ve played too many a staff in my early days, to maybe a couple of people at that one table. So you appreciate these things, when people are happy to see you. And the Rochester audience has really supported me like no other. So I’m happy to say — thank goodness in many of our markets — but the Rochester audience was the first really to, to really make us feel welcome.
That was accidentally the first of The Big Three questions. I always like to ask artists, what’s the next thing on the horizon? What’s the next thing you want to do, or you want to accomplish on your career path here?
The next thing… I don’t know if I can imagine the next thing. So what has also happened over these last couple of years is that I’ve gotten to collaborate with so many players, (like) Emmet Cohen and so many players that I have known, but we just didn’t get a chance to work together.
I’ve really formed more musical relationships over the past couple of years. So I would say, just to continue to form musical collaborations with people that maybe I haven’t worked with people… That’s the most exciting thing to me is new musical collaborations, and ways of just expanding myself as a vocalist, and just how I see myself and how I think about music and different things.
We also got to do a Tiny Desk, which was a gift. Never thought I’d get that. So it’s hard to say what I’m going to do, but also I have a couple of symphony gigs coming up, which I really enjoy. So it’s these collaborations, in addition to working with my incredible musicians in my band that keep me moving forward.
So (I’ll) just keep finding other tunes I like, and keep the ball rolling with recording, and try to record something every couple of years and keep that going.
I’ve been to Japan many times, in other bands, you know, with all of the iconic people that I’ve gotten to work with over the years. So hopefully is to get there under my own name. So I would say, that would be a big goal. I love going to Japan.
I like to end with this because I feel it is important to pass it along to the next generation. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
The aspiring young artists that I have worked with — and I’ve seen many of them when they were in school, and then when they’ve come out of school — is to work as much as possible, form as many musical relationships as possible. And work as much as they can work. So getting out there, and performing seems to be the key.
You can sit in the studio, and you can sit at home with your gear, and make you know, 6 million tracks of yourself or whatever it is, (but) there’s nothing like collaborating with other people, and there’s nothing like performing because that’s the way you’re going to test and see where you’re actually at. When you have feedback, some people are afraid of feedback, and I understand that. But feedback is the only way we grow.
I have seen people that I mentor grow through performance, and they come alive when they get in front of an audience and realize, “oh, this is really what I want to do.”
So it’s relationships, and I would be no place without recommendations. Every gig that I’ve gotten is through somebody recommending me for it. Everything I’ve done, every gig has been through working with someone else that said “give her a chance, I know you don’t know who she is, give her a chance.” So that’s the way we grow… And then we form community.
Community is the way we form bonds, community is the way that we work, community is the way we find out if we can actually get along with people. That’s how you find out that people are going to hire you if you know how to act. If you don’t, then somebody else will get the gig. So this community, there’s no substitute. No substitute for it.