Catherine Russell is a rarity among jazz and blues vocalists. Not only does she possess exemplary musical skills; she also has an affinity for research that sets her miles ahead of her contemporaries in understanding the history of song.
Inside This Heart Of Mine, Russell’s third album, boosts undeservedly obscure repertoire from the pens of Fats Waller, Harold Arlen, Wynonie Harris, Duke Ellington, and Willie Dixon — originally recorded in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s by the likes of Peggy Lee, Maxine Sullivan, Arthur Prysock, Louis Armstrong, and Howlin’ Wolf. If that adroit sourcing of material doesn’t bowl over a particular listener, then Russell’s always relevant, full-of-life vocal approach will.
Take, for example, “We The People” — a rousing, Great Depression call for government to “give the nation syncopation” amidst harsh taxation. Sourced from an unreleased 1938 Waller recording, it’s a swingin’ tune fully effected by Russell’s matter-of-fact delivery: clear in diction, zesty in tone. It doesn’t hurt that she’s backed by an appealing ensemble that teams lively trombone and piano solos with sprightly guitar strumming. In another shade of emotion, she silkily conveys Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen’s “As Long As I Live” — taking a few respectable cues from Maxine Sullivan’s 1969 recording.
Those who take their authentic, old-time musical brew slow will appreciate the at-ease, yet focused arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Long, Strong and Consecutive” and the pensive nature of “November” — one of Heart’s most recent songs, penned in 1999 by producer Paul Kahn. The set’s closing number is “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque,” an Armstrong Dixieland groove with lyrics by Don Raye. Russell’s vibrant phrasing, accompanied by an unassuming flurry of horns, bass, and clarinet, perfectly sums up her phonic essence: pure, inspired, never missing a beat.