Vocalist Catherine Russell possesses one of the most impressive pedigrees in jazz.
Her papa played piano for Louis Armstrong. Her mama played guitar for the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and later developed into one of Manhattan’s top lady bassists.
Now hot jazz flows freely in Cat Russell’s veins.
You can hear the echo of New Orleans in her arrangements of tunes such as her father’s “I’ve Got That Thing” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “New Orleans.”
You can hear the blues loud and clear when Cat sings Bessie Smith’s “Kitchen Man” and Willie Dixon’s “I Don’t Care Who Knows.”
You can hear Cat’s lovely, languid alto as she casually croons Pearl Bailey’s “I’m Lazy, That’s All” and Sam Cooke’s “You Were Made for Me.”
You can hear barrelhouse piano from stride-master Mark Shane and banjo magic from guitarist Chris Flory who will accompany Cat here along with bassist Lee Hudson when the singer celebrates Jazz Appreciation Month at 7 p.m. Saturday April 18, at Eastwood’s Palace Theater, 2384 James St.
Saturday’s concert is sponsored by WAER-FM 88.3. Tickets cost $15. For reservations, call 443-4834.
Cat’s Panamanian-born father, Luis Russell, was a pianist and bandleader who worked in the 1930s and ’40s with Louis Armstrong. Her mother, Carline Ray, has performed with Erskine Hawkins, Mary Lou Williams and Wynton Marsalis.
Although Luis Russell passed away in 1963 when Cathy was 7 years old, she retains vivid memories. “He I were very close,” she said in a telephone interview last week. “He’d play piano every day and his old New Orleans friends would visit, guys like Charley Holmes, Paul Barbarin, and Pops Foster.”
Armstrong stopped over to the Russell residence too. The liner notes to Cat’s new disc, Sentimental Streak, include a series of home-movie stills of the quintessential jazzman hugging her joyously when she was just a tot.
Though a late-bloomer, Cat Russell, now 52, sang back-up for pop acts such as Paul Simon, Cyndi Lauper and Steely Dan before singing jazz with groups including bassist Earl May and pianist Larry Ham, according to All Music Guide writer Michael Nastos.
“Russell emerged as a retro old-school vocalist for the ages,” Nastos declared.
Her debut disc, Cat, was released in 2006 by the World Village label followed by last year’s Sentimental Streak featuring guitarist/producer Larry Campbell and Howard Johnson.
While Cat Russell willingly embraces her rich jazz legacy, she calls herself a singer, not a jazz singer.
“Jazz is such a big word,” she said. “You can call something whatever you want to call it, but what counts is that it’s people-friendly. In my shows, I’m inviting you as a guest. You’ve come to listen to me sing, and I want to share myself with you.”
Similarly, Cat strives choose material to which audiences can relate.
“I ask myself, ‘Do I like it? Is it fun? Does it make me smile? Do I want to hear it again?” she said. “What I like is the story of a song. The lyrics are what I look at first. If I cannot sing every single lyric I don’t pick it. Every lyric has to express what I feel personally, then I look at melodic structure, then harmonic structure. Then I think, ‘Is this gonna be fun for us to play?’ I like people-friendly material, songs that have universal appeal.”
Sentimental Streak features a lone Cat Russell original, “Luci,” an absolutely spellbinding story song which stands strong and tall among tracks by Yip Harburg, Andy Razaf and James P. Johnson…and that’s saying something!