Paying homage to early jazz and swing
Catherine Russell

Paying homage to early jazz and swing

Catherine Russell, a Grammy-winning vocalist, will perform at Vermont Jazz Center

BRATTLEBORO — At the Vermont Jazz Center, we are pleased to present vocalist Catherine Russell in concert on Saturday, Oct. 15.

Russell will be performing with her working quartet, a group of musicians dedicated to creating energetic interpretations of blues and swing music, including Matt Munisteri on guitar, Sean Mason on piano, and Tal Ronen on acoustic bass.

Russell has earned two Grammy nominations for Best Vocal Jazz Album and won a Grammy for her contribution to the soundtrack of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. At this phase in her career, Russell specializes in uncovering early jazz repertoire that dates back to the years when her musician parents were active.

Evoking her familial heritage as jazz royalty, Russell pays homage to the stylistic integrity of the early 20th century, singing blues and swing music with heartfelt sincerity and authenticity.

Catherine Russell's father, the late Luis Russell, was a pianist and arranger who moved to New Orleans from Panama in 1919. He can be heard on several of the seminal recordings with King Oliver, including “Sugarfoot Stomp” (a staple in most college-level jazz history courses). He served for many years as Louis Armstrong's musical director.

Jazz historian Scott Yanow writes that the Luis Russell Orchestra of 1929–31 (with Armstrong on cornet and vocals) was “one of the finest jazz groups of the time.” Luis Russell and Armstrong remained good friends until Russell's death in 1963.

In a family photo posted on Catherine Russell's website, Louis Armstrong lifts a young Catherine into the air while beaming his famous, joyful smile.

Russell's mother, the late Carline Ray, was a multi-instrumentalist who performed with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a group of young, racially integrated women who toured the United States, including the deep South. Their rise to fame coincided with World War I while many male musicians were fighting overseas.

Ray, a Julliard graduate, continued to perform throughout her life, primarily as a vocalist and electric bassist. She went on to receive her master's degree in music, focusing on classical music, choral singing, and conducting. She continued her relationship with the jazz world, including noteworthy associations with Mary Lou Williams, Sy Oliver, Erskine Hawkins, and many others.

Between 2008 and 2011, Catherine Russell produced an album, a loving tribute that places Ray's voice with a fine, swinging rhythm section. The meticulously chosen arrangements include two moving gospel numbers with Russell and Ray singing together, and two songs in which Ray is accompanied by the poignant cello work of Akua Dixon.

The result, Vocal Sides, was Ray's first recording as a featured vocalist. It was released shortly before she passed away in 2013 at the age of 88.

Catherine Russell can be heard on more than 200 recordings in a variety of styles, including jazz, rock, and folk. She has toured and recorded with performers such as Steely Dan, David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Madonna, Jackson Browne, Diana Ross, and Rosanne Cash, as well as numerous jazz legends like Jimmy Heath, Wynton Marsalis, and John Pizarelli.

In 2019, Russell acted and sang in the feature film Bolden, a biopic about jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden.

After years of performing as a rock and pop backup singer, Russell made the leap to record as a lead artist in 2006. Although she loved the energy and vitality of the rock stage, she decided to focus her efforts on the repertoire that reflects the style of music she grew up with and chose to immerse herself in the world of blues and early jazz.

In an interview with Monk Rowe, she revealed that there wasn't much work for headlining Black artists, especially Black women. Instead, she committed herself to the study of obscure repertoire sung by the blues queens of the 1920s and '30s. Russell naturally transforms the magic of the jazz legends she encountered as a youth, incorporating their styles so thoroughly that the old swing and blues styles emerge as an intrinsic part of her personality.

In Russell's hands, this repertoire is current and fresh, presented as an authentic, living art form rather than cute iterations of an era gone by.

In her verbal introduction to her NPR Tiny Desk concert, Russell discusses her choice of material: “I am inspired by the Black, blues-women of the 1920s, so I do a lot of that kind of material [including] Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, and so forth.”

The influence of the original artists' concepts shines through Russell's interpretations. She has rediscovered the messages and multiple layers implicit in these choice tunes and sings them with familiarity, respect, love, and truth.

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In her seven albums as a leader, one observes Russell's beautiful balance of instrumentation, sometimes paring the voice with only piano or guitar, sometimes packing a punch with a full ensemble. She also chooses the musicians with whom she performs with great care.

This tour is no exception; each musician in the group is a devotee of the swing style.

Matt Munisteri is the group's music director; at the Jazz Center performance, he will play banjo and guitars. Munisteri has recorded extensively. His website says that he is “a first-call guitarist when a 'period' sound is sought for CDs, film scores, and commercials.”

He has collaborated with many colleagues, including Vince Giordano, Mark O'Connor, Andy Stein, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and Loudon Wainwright III.

As an educator and clinician, Munisteri has taught at the Berklee College of Music, the Augusta Heritage Center, the Ashokan Center, and Centrum. He has released four recordings as a leader and has appeared as a sideman on about 120 recordings of other artists.

The group's pianist, Sean Mason, was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, singing and playing piano in the Baptist church. His musical roots include gospel, hip-hop, and R&B music, but then he discovered jazz and decided to make a career of it.

Branford Marsalis recalls an encounter he had with Mason at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, saying, “I gave him 'King Porter Stomp' to transcribe. I must have given that to 15 students over the years, and none ever learned it. [...] I gave him Edvard Grieg's 'Lyric Pieces,' and he came back and played two of those basically from memory. I said, 'You might want to consider Juilliard.'”

Mason applied to and got into Julliard and then quickly made a name for himself in New York City, performing and touring with many jazz legends, including Branford Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, and Herlin Riley. He is recognized for his ability to play fluently many styles of music, spanning across multiple genres and generations of artists. Mason was the pianist for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020) and Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre (2021), as well as Broadway productions of Hadestown and Phantom of the Opera.

Bassist Tal Ronen is from Tel Aviv, Israel. While in his teens he was guided by Arnie Lawrence and later worked with John Patitucci.

A recipient of two scholarships from the American-Israeli Cultural Foundation, he has performed in numerous festivals. He moved to New York where he received his bachelor's in fine arts from City College. He has performed with jazz legends Frank Wess, Jimmy Cobb, Harry Whitaker, Sheila Jordan, and others at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Village Vanguard, The Iridium, Jazz at Kitano, Smalls Jazz Club, and Mezzrow.

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