Harlem On My Mind

Luis and Catherine Russell

I first heard Catherine Russell at — you guessed it — a Steely Dan show. She has provided backing vocals as a member of the Danettes in several Dan tours of recent years. She’s also toured with David Bowie, Paul Simon, Levon Helm, Wynton Marsalis, Dr. John, and many others. She has contributed vocals to several albums I consider to be among the best in my collection: Steely Dan’s Everything Must Go (2003), David Bowie’s Reality (2003), Levon Helm’s Electric Dirt (2009), Amy Helm’s solo debut Didn’t It Rain (2015), and Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad (1993), and Sunken Condos (2012). Let’s just say her vocal skills are in demand.  But Catherine is a star in her own right. You might even say she is jazz nobility. Her father, Luis Russell was pianist, composer, arranger, and long-time musical director of Louis Armstrong’s band. Her mother, Carline Ray, educated at Julliard and the Manhattan School of Music, was an accomplished bassist, guitarist, and vocalists as well. Carline Ray performed with Mary Lou Williams, Ruth Brown, and with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first all women’s band in the United States.

Harlem On My Mind (2016), released last September, is Catherine’s sixth and latest solo album. Earlier this year, it garnered a Grammy nomination for “Best Jazz Vocal Album.” (She lost to Gregory Porter, but I didn’t get a vote. 🙂 ) Harkening back to an earlier era in jazz, Harlem is my favorite from Catherine to date. Cameras were apparently in the studio during the recording of at least portions of this album. Check out “Swing, Brother Swing.” I’m pretty sure this is the album version. It gives Billie Holiday a run for her money if that’s possible. And what a band!

The band:
Catherine Russell – vocals
Mark Shane – piano,
Matt Munisteri – guitar
Tal Ronen – bass
Mark McLean – drums
Jon-Erik Kellso -trumpet
Mark Lopeman – sax, arranger
John Allred – trombone

Another great cut from Harlem is “You’re My Thrill,” again mining that Billie Holiday vein. (Have you heard Joni Mitchell’s version? But that’s a topic for another day.) Harlem On My Mind is a great place to start if you’re unfamiliar with Catherine’s solo career. But Harlem is only the latest. So when you’re ready for more, let me suggest “I’m In the Mood for Love” from Strictly Romancin’ (2012), “All the Cats Join In” from Inside The Heart of Mine (2010), or the tongue-in-cheek (I hope) “My Man’s an Undertaker” from her debut Cat (2006).

For the vocal jazz aficionados among us.

Carline Ray performs “Come Sunday” at the Women in Jazz Festival, St. Peter’s Church, NYC, April 5, 2008. Caroline is seated behind her. Ms. Ray passed away in 2013.
Chris Cooke interviews Catherine Russell on KIOS-FM, an NPR affiliate.

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