XRIJF Day 1 – Catherine Russell
On my first night, I experience two of three big things you do at the Jazz Fest: see someone you love, and discover someone new. I only left out seeing a headliner, but we’ll get to that next week! I saw Jazz Fest fan favorite Catherine Russell, and I took in Scottish jazz singer-songwriter Lorna Reid. Both have a distinct act, stick to their strengths, and expertly entertain a crowd.
With my new wristband, I settled in for Catherine Russell at 6pm. Compared to Harro East, her venue of the past two years, Kilbourn was more intimate, with exceptionally clean and crisp audio, and it was enjoyable to get close up looks of her band, Mark Shane on piano, Matt Munisteri on guitar, and Tal Ronen on bass; the same guys at last year’s show. There was an incredible electricity in the air. The audience was cheering for both the Eastman student taking care of the housekeeping, to Amelia Nugent introducing her father John who kicked off “the very first show of the 15th Annual Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival.” I thought to myself, “this crowd is gonna explode.” Sure enough, they did, and the energy kept going.
Catherine Russell is absolute proof that good things come in small packages. The five-foot dynamo with the righteous dreadlocks filled up the hall with ease, even blasting a note away from the microphone that was heard in the back row. Throughout the whole set, Russell and her band swung through some of her standard rep, as well as material that is on her newest album, “Bring It Back.” Fortunately for Rochester, she had a limited number of those CDs available before the worldwide release in September.
Russell – who’s father Luis was Satchmo’s band leader and long-time collaborator and who’s mother Carline Ray was pioneering multi-instrumentalist – specializes in older jazz; the blues, swing, and Great American Songbook. She sings this music, which is most jazz listener’s comfort food – it never gets old, and it never fails to please – with older stylings and modern sensibility with a touch that’s distinctively her’s. Invoking the subtle sultriness, sexy, and sass with the blues like Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Dinah Washington, and Bessies Smith, she makes old tunes sound new, from 1917 to the 1950’s. She admits that she’ll “go back 200 years” to find a song, and pleaded with the young jazz writers to write music “that will last a hundred years, would ya?”
A ball of energy, Russell interacted with the crowd as well, telling stories of each tune, herself, and had a nice exchange between two swing dancers named Beth and Michelle, who have seen Russell the past two years and have gotten up and swung along; it looked like Russell recognized them, and gave them a shout out before the show.
Russell took on us a tour of older jazz, singing some standards, “I Got Rhythm,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” the dixieland “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” “Can’t Believe You’re In Love With Me,” then Billie Holiday tunes “Swing, Brother, Swing,” which true to its title had the swing harmonies and jive of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, one slow tune “You’re my Thrill,” blues cookers and funny tunes “Quiet Whiskey,” “Right Key, Wrong Keyhole,” “My Man’s an Undertaker,” “Aged and Mellow,” “Whatcha Doin'” (which featured the band with a little background singing, much to the crowd and Russell’s delight), and title tracks from her previous album, “Bring It Back,” and her new album, “Harlem On My Mind.”
Russell’s blues touch, slides, scoops, and shouts along with her sassy dancing and stage presence provided an excellent performance. Her band was in equal parts the star of the show.
To quote NBA legend Charles Barkley, guitarist Matt Munisteri (Russell’s longtime guitarist) was “the engine that stirred the drink.” His authoritative, crisp, and direct playing dictated the feel of the rhythm section, which when from stop time, to stomp time, to 12/8, and to good ol’ fashioned swing. Mark Shane blended a perfect line of taste, blues, jazz, and soul, and along with Munisteri delivered perfect sophisticated bluesy solos each time.
Ronen excelled in the small space as well, as the audience could get a great sense of the sound and feel of his G and D gut strings, laying down a great foundation and added voice. His only solo was the solo of night, using his whole bass and getting up into neck position, combining licks, melody, and riffs that had Russell sing along and the audience grooving. He got a massive, well-deserved ovation.
Russell and the band received a standing o’, one of the fastest I’ve ever seen.