The first time anybody at this blog saw Catherine Russell, it was about three in the morning and she was belting her heart out over a tight funk band called the Pleasure Unit, who would later become somewhat better known as TV on the Radio. In the fourteen years since then, she’s become one of the biggest names in oldtime swing jazz. Her previous album, Strictly Romancin’, was a Louis Armstrong tribute (Russell’s multi-instrumentalist dad Luis played in Armstrong’s band: the apple didn’t fall far). Her latest album, Bring It Back, goes deeper into the blues, in a Duke Ellington way. Harmonia Mundi gets credit for releasing the album, which is up at Spotify.
The band lineup is pretty much the same as the previous album: musical director Matt Munisteri on guitar and other fretted instruments; Mark Shane on piano; Lee Hudson on bass; Mark McClean on drums; Glenn Patscha on organ; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; Mark Lopeman on baritone sax; John Allred on trombone; and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds. Other than just the pure chops they bring to the songs, the way the both Russell and the band shift direction depending on the underlying emotional content is what distinguishes them from the legions of shi-shi restaurant bands and cruise ship combos who try to make a go of this oldtime stuff. The arrangements may be refined to the nth degree, but the group’s approach to the songs’ heartbreak and intensity (and sometimes just plain good fun) is disarmingly direct.
The album opens with the catchy midtempo title track, Russell’s urbane sophistication balanced way out on a limb by Munisteri’s unexpectedly feral, wildly string-bending guitar, confronting the angst that the vocals refuse to give in to. “High” is the operative word in Shooting High, with its elegant handoffs from one instrument to the next. The steady, shady I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart matches muted trumpet and somewhat furtive sax to the wistfulness and resignation in Russell’s understatedly torchy delivery. Then they pick up the pace with the jaunty, dixieland-flavored You Got to Swing and Sway.
The band does Aged and Mellow as an oldschool soul ballad in the same vein as Willie Nelson’s Night Life – Russell doesn’t let on how the story’s actually being told by a gold-digger. They keep the high spirits going with the nonchalantly triumphant, shuffling Darktown Strutters’ Ball and then hit a peak with a big, brassy arrangement of Lucille (not the B.B. King song but a previously unreleased, exuberant number by Russell’s dad).
Russell’s most pillowy vocal here is You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb, set to a ragtime-tinged piano-and-guitar backdrop. After the Lights Go Down, a gorgeous blend of oldschool soul and blues, sets Russell’s confidently conspiratorial vocals against wickedly shivery guitar and organ. I’m Sticking With You Baby, a litany of prewar aphorisms, has more invigorating, bluesy organ, Russell trading bars with the band as they take it all the way up at the end.
The minor-key, irony-drenched, ragtime-inflected Strange As It Seems makes a stark contrast. The jump blues Public Melody Number One picks up the pace again, with an absolutely surreal lyric:
Frankenstein, a bundle of joy
Jesse James is a teacher’s pet
A gatling gun compared to
Shots from a hot corvette
The album ends with an absolutely riveting, unexpectedly energetic version of the old Billie Holiday standard I Cover the Waterfront, rising and falling with an angst that dignifies the neighborhood hooker and her ache for the guy who’s gone away across the ocean, no doubt for good. On one level, this is a trip back in time; on another, a lot of the playing here is more eclectic than what your typical studio band would try to pull off in, say, 1934.