Catherine Russell’s interpretation of Perry Bradford’s “Crazy Blues” on the soundtrack for the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” is unflinching. It’s whole and hefty and seamlessly connected all the way up and down her vocal range. More vitally, it’s not an imitation of Mamie Smith, the vaudeville blues pioneer that popularized it in 1920. It’s not an attempt to capture something “vintage” befitting the Prohibition-era series. It does not sound like it’s emanating from an antique Victrola. It is perfectly new, as brash and as lyrically dark now as it was when audiences first devoured it, and maybe that has something to do with the interpreter’s musical DNA. Russell is the daughter of the late Carline Ray, rhythm guitarist for the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated all-women’s band in the U.S., and Luis Russell, longtime musical director for Louis Armstrong. I talked with Russell ahead of her appearance at South on Main as part of the Oxford American Jazz Series.
One of the tunes you chose for “Harlem on My Mind” was “You’ve Got the Right Key But the Wrong Keyhole,” which you perform with so much playfulness and humor. The innuendo’s pretty mild here, but there are much more explicit tunes — songs Bessie Smith and Ida Cox did, for example. What is your approach to these “innuendo” songs?
Well, I’m a big fan of that genre and of the writing of that time: the early ’20s. I just have to pick my audiences. If it’s an all-ages audience in the United States, then I’ll pick the lighter ones, like “Kitchen Man.” A friend of mine — now she’s grown — but when she was a child, she just thought “Kitchen Man” was about food!
Sure. When I hear “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl” now, it’s like, “How did I hear this as a child and not think, ‘What’s goin’ on there?’ “
Kids just don’t know. There are jokes in Alberta Hunter tunes, also, that are just gonna go right over a child’s head. You don’t get these references until you have the images to go with them. Even in these days of “everything is everywhere,” there’s still things you’re not gonna get unless you’ve lived, you know? Which is a good thing.
I want to ask about your parents, Carline Ray and Luis Russell, both of whom were jazz pioneers in their own careers. Did you always take being surrounded by music as a given? Was there a moment when you realized that something in your background was exceptional?
Music was a given because I didn’t know anything else. … The two things that were exceptional were that my mother was a bass player. Actually, with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, she was a guitar player and sometimes vocalist, but mainly a rhythm guitar player. So, people asked me, “What does your mother do?” and I said she was a bass player. And they’d say, “What?” And I’d have to explain that. The other thing was that my dad worked with Louis Armstrong. And nobody believed that, you know, kids don’t believe that. And in those days, everybody knew who Louis Armstrong was, even as children. And after we’d visit his house, I remember saying to this bully that “Hey, we went to Louis Armstrong’s house,” and he was like, “Yeah, right!” So, that kind of thing.
How frustrating — as a kid, to be telling the truth and not be believed.
Eh, it didn’t frustrate me. I just moved on. Like, “OK, they don’t believe me, so that’s fine.”
You, like a lot of the greats, have this ability to phrase melodies creatively, to find reasons to elongate a phrase or to cut it short to keep it interesting to the ear. Much of that, of course, depends on your ensemble. Can you tell us a little about your band for these guys you’re gonna be playing with in February — Matt Munisteri on guitar, Mark Shane on piano and Tal Ronen on bass?
Well, first: Thank you. I appreciate that, and let me just say that I always start with the lyric. The lyric determines first where I go with the phrasing. Then, of course, I do have the best trio in the land. They help me with arrangements, they help me because they understand swing and blues, and audiences love the way they sound. I’ve been with Mark Shane and Matt Munisteri about 10 years, and Tal Ronen was introduced to me about four and a half years ago, so that makes for a great deal of musical understanding between us.
In taking the work that comes, you have worked a lot as a backup singer, and it’s easy, after hearing something like “Harlem on My Mind,” to wonder why anybody would put you in the background. Steely Dan, for example. Was that hard, or did you enjoy not being the leader all the time?
I’m a singer. So I like whatever kind of good work can happen. I’m not in any way not fully expressing myself when I sing behind somebody great like Donald Fagen. It just doesn’t exist. Lead singing and backup singing are two different sets of skills, and singing with somebody great like David Bowie is just a different way of expressing oneself. The artists that I have been privileged enough to work with are also very respectful of the people who work with them. I’ve been working with Donald Fagen for 30 years, almost, and love every minute of it. I didn’t get into this business to be the focus, I got into it for the music. People have this misconception that it’s like “Twenty Feet From Stardom.” That you’re back there saying, “Ugh, I can’t wait ’til I’m in front,” and that people’s careers aren’t taking off. Not really! All of it’s fun. A lot of us are very happy doing what we do.
When I saw Steely Dan at Red Rocks in 2015, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker broke away and left the stage for a good half hour in the middle of the show, and we didn’t miss them. What happened during that “break” with the band — all of them soloists in their own right — was so magical.
Right. And this is my point. The confident, iconic people that I’ve been privileged to work with are strong enough in themselves to have very strong backing musicians. … Everybody’s got other careers in addition to Steely Dan, which makes it even stronger, you see? All situations feed each other and strengthen each other.
Catherine Russell performs with her trio at South on Main, 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 1. Tickets, $30-$48, are available at metrotix.com or by calling 800-293-5949.