Blues Alley, the District’s iconic jazz and blues club, recently presented Catherine Russell for a two-night gig. Russell described her music as “capturing Black blues women” during a Tiny Desk Concert this past February. A versatile singer is what she really is.
Russell has recorded several albums as a solo artist. With her range, she has performed with Steely Dan, David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Michael Feinstein, Toshi Reagon, Rosanne Cash and many others. Discovering some of Russell’s blues-slanted sound reminds one of ragtime-infused arrangements.
“I love that genre of music. We are also into the Black America songbook,” Russell said in a conversation before coming to DC.
For the D.C. performance, Russell had to try something a little different. The singer had severe laryngitis on the last day of her stint at Blues Alley. Singing was dicey at best. Making it to the stage backed by her talented trio, Russell delivered “Black-blues-woman-spoken-word” music, taking suggestive lyrics to a well-received sultry level. It worked because the audience showed her abundant love.
The “spoken” playlist included “Ain’t No Fault of Mine,” “Make It Do,” a calypso-tinged tune, and “Aged and Mellow Blues,” an Esther Phillips classic that contained the lyric “I like my men, like I like my whiskey.” The set ended with “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer,” a song made famous by Jimmy Witherspoon. A lot of innuendoes, spiced with voice inflections, delivered a fun evening.
Major props go to Russell’s trio, led by guitarist/vocalist Matt Munisteri and acoustic bassist Tal Ronen, and pianist Sean Mason. Munisteri has performed with Russell for 15 years, Ronen for ten years, and Mason is the newest member. The group excelled in making things work for their star vocalist. The trio opened with their own 40-minute set with traditional and American Songbook songs. Mason was a pleasant surprise, at age 24, he has an “old soul,” as revealed by a solo piano rendition of “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
When their set ended, Russell and the trio mingled with the crowd like old friends. It was an impressive first-time visit to the historic Blues Alley despite the circumstances. Hopefully, there is a return visit scheduled for this “blues woman.”
Russell has distinguished musical roots. Her father was Luis Russell, 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. High-quality family influences played into Russell’s overcoming a challenge with her D.C. engagement.
Connect with Russell through her website at https://www.catherinerussell.net.