Catherine Russell has made a career out of bringing edge and freshness to old swing jazz tunes both popular and obscure. Much as she’s often mined the so-called “great American songbook” for much of it, she and her band steer clear of cliches. Other than the present, the time period they most closely evoke is the early 30s, before swing got watered down for segregated white audiences. And where so many other jazz singers mimic icons from decades past, Russell long ago developed a resolute, purposefully individualistic style, with a deep if not always immediately present blues influence – something you might expect from someone whose pianist father Luis was Louis Armstrong’s musical director. Her new album Alone Together – which hasn’t hit her Spotify channel yet – is just out. She and her similarly purist group are celebrating the release with a stand at Birdland this Feb 12-16, with sets at 9 and 11 PM. You can get in for thirty bucks.
They open the new record with the title track: ultimately, it’s an optimistic ballad, but both Russell and the band anchor it with a steady, gritty swing, pianist Mark Shane and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso ramping up an underlying, steely bluesiness. Likewise, Russell and Shane max out the irony in You Turned the Tables on Me, over bassist Tal Ronen and drummer Mark McLean’s steady stroll.
When Did You Leave Heaven has a plush string section, a subtle 12/8 rhythm and a spare, spacious soul solo from musical director/guitarist Matt Munisteri. They reinvent Early in the Morning as a barrelhouse piano cha-cha, punctuated with Mark Lopeman’s tenor sax and Munisteri’s wry Chicago blues solo. Then they turn Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby into a wary New Orleans stroll with a terse, edgy horn chart, probably the last thing Louis Jordan ever imagined for this song – at least until Kellso cuts loose with his mute.
Russell matches sass to knowing sarcasm while the band romp through You Can’t Pull the Wool Over My Eyes, Lopeman and Kellso trading off with trombonist John Allred with some lively dixieland. Her angst is more distant in Shake Down the Stars, Shane’s emphatic solo giving way to Kellso’s airier, more wistful lines. Then the group take their time with a gorgeously bittersweet, take of the blues ballad I Wonder, lowlit by Munisteri’s tremoloing guitar and resonant washes of brass.
The real gem here is the innuendo-packed hokum blues He May Be Your Dog But He’s Wearing My Collar, a 1923 hit for singer Rosa Henderson, who would no doubt approve of Russell’s defiance over Shane’s stride piano and Munisteri’s shivery slide work. The band romp through the sudden tempo shifts of Errand Girl for Rhythm and then flip the script with a steady, darkly ambered take of How Deep Is the Ocean. Likewise, they keep a purposeful slink going through their take of I Only Have Eyes for You.
They wind up the album with a tasty version of You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew, with a nod over the shoulder at those great 1920s Bessie Smith/James P. Johnson collaborations. Russell has made a bunch of good records over the years but this might be the best of them all.