It was quite a night: Harry Connick, Jr., Jon Batiste, Catherine Russell, Sullivan Fortner, Wynton, Branford and Jason Marsalis, among others, in “The Birth of Jazz: From Bolden to Armstrong” at the annual Jazz at Lincoln Center gala on April 17. My review for DownBeat.com.
Category Archives: Catherine Russell
…but, rather, here are my favorite albums of 2016. Why the distinction? I think it’s silly and self-aggrandizing for anyone, however expert their ears, to say “These are the 10 best albums of the year.” I get that people, myself included, have an insatiable appetite to rank things, perhaps to make the world seem a little more orderly. But music is not science. Its virtues resist quantification.
Many 10-best lists seem to me primarily driven by critical notions of what sounds the most innovative, hence the usual bias toward the avant-garde. That’s fine. But I feel that jazz (and music in general) is not primarily about innovation or progress. It should appeal to the heart as well as the head.
I do prize originality and think jazz should sound new and of its time. But that newness is all about individuality, not some intellectual conceit of progress. A great album or song should sound like the honest expression of no one but this artist. There’s another practical reason I don’t call these “the best” albums: there are many hundreds of jazz and jazz-related CDs issued every year. Nobody can listen to everything, and I don’t pretend to have heard them all.
The list that follows is an expanded version of the one I supplied to The 2016 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. The NPR poll showed, by the way, that there is essentially no critical consensus on what the year’s “best” albums were. The album that came in first place, Henry Threadgill’s Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, received a mere 41 votes out of the 137 critics and journalists polled.
Here are my favorites, the albums I heard this year that moved me on a personal, emotional and intellectual level. Maybe they will move you, too.
1. Trio Corrente, Vol. 3 (Independent release) – Using Brazilian pop and folkloric building blocks, the Sao Paulo-based trio of Fabio Torres (piano), Paulo Paulelli (bass) and Edu Ribeiro (drums) make joyful music of wild originality with jaw-dropping rhythmic precision. They shared a Grammy award in 2014 with clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera for the album Song for Maura. Still they are my candidate for the best band that almost nobody in the U.S. has heard of. (In the U.S. you can hear their most recent albums on Spotify.)
2. Peter Bernstein – Let Loose (Smoke Sessions) – A great album by one of my favorite guitarists. With fabulous backing by pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Doug Weiss, and drummer Bill Stewart, Bernstein is free to “let loose” like a horn player, and, boy, does he.
3. Gregory Porter – Take Me to the Alley (Blue Note) – The burnished baritone returns with a new batch of originals that take his songwriting to a whole new level.
4. Bill Charlap – Notes from New York (Impulse) – The new album from the impeccable pianist is a master class in class. I have given only three albums five stars. This is one of them.
5. Tillery (Rebecca Martin, Becca Stevens, Gretchen Parlato) (Larrecca Music) – Tillery combines the talents of three of today’s most interesting singer-songwriters: Becca Stevens, Rebecca Martin, and Gretchen Parlato. On their debut album, the exquisite songs defy easy categorization; maybe that’s why I like them so much.
6. George Coleman – A Master Speaks (Smoke Sessions) — The 80-year-old tenor saxophonist, a NEA Jazz Master and Miles Davis Quintet alumnus, released his first album as a leader in 20 years with an all-star band – and it’s excellent.
7. Snarky Puppy – Family Dinner, Vol. 2 (Decca-Ground Up Records) The jazz-rock-funk collective from Denton, TX is highly popular, and deservedly so. Led by bassist/arranger Michael League, these guys have big ears for great music from all over the world. Here they are with singer/songwriter Becca Stevens and the Swedish band Väsen, playing a song by Stevens.
8. Cyrille Aimée – Let’s Get Lost (Mack Avenue) – A fabulous performance by the French jazz singer with the unforgettable voice.
9. Fred Hersch – Sunday Night at the Vanguard (Palmetto) – Another brilliant outing by one of the best piano trios in jazz.
10. Jack DeJohnette • Ravi Coltrane • Matthew Garrison — In Movement (ECM)
11. Trio da Paz, 30 (Zoho) – Celebrating its 30th anniversary as a trio, the Brazilian expatriate supergroup of guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Nilson Matta and drummer Duduka da Fonseca continues to impress with its unique blend of Brazilian and American jazz.
12. Roberta Piket, One for Marian (Thirteenth Note Records)
13. Catherine Russell – Harlem on My Mind (Jazz Village)
14. David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia)
15. Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil – Dois Amigos (Nonesuch)
My Favorite Reissues or Historical albums:
1) Bill Evans – Some Other Time: The Lost Session from The Black Forest (Resonance Records)
2) The Savory Collection, Vol. 1 (Apple Music)
3) Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 (Columbia/Legacy)
Favorite Vocal Album:
Cyrille Aimée – Let’s Get Lost (Mack Avenue)
Favorite Debut album:
Jacob Collier – In My Room (Membran/Qwest)
Favorite Latin jazz album:
Trio Corrente, Vol. 3. (Independent release)
Honorable mentions: Joey Alexander – Countdown (Motema); Leslie Pintchik – True North (Pinch Hard); Nels Cline, Lovers (Blue Note); Dave Stryker – 8 Track II (Strike Zone); Kenny Barron – Book of Intuition (Verve) ; John Scofield – Country for Old Men (Impulse); Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau – Nearness (Nonesuch); Ted Nash – Presidential Suite (Motema); Russell Malone, All About Melody (HighNote)
Catherine Russell (Photo: Gene Guerrero)
I had a great time last week at MSR Studios on 48th St., watching Catherine Russell and an ace 10-piece band (six horns plus a rhythm section) track a Dinah Washington blues classic for her new album – everything recorded live, no overdubs. My article, “DownBeat Visits Catherine Russell in Studio for ‘Harlem’ Sessions,” is here:
What a swell party last night (6/30/15) at Jazz at Lincoln Center for launch of a new JALC-branded jazz record label, to be called Blue Engine Records. The turnout included these jazz masters and many more of the greatest musicians in New York, among them Christian McBride, Aaron Diehl, Nilson Matta, Ted Nash, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Lew Tabackin, and Catherine Russell. My report will be posted at DownBeat.com tomorrow (July 2).
…and 50s R&B at Jazz at Lincoln Center. My review from DownBeat.com:
Catherine Russell and a Tentet Tear It Up at Dizzy’s
“I’m shooting high, got my eye on a star in the sky – I’m shooting high,” Catherine Russell sang in her opening number at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on Monday night. With a sold-out house at her feet and the club’s floor-to-ceiling views of the twinkling Manhattan skyline at her back, she seemed to have reached the song’s lofty goal.
Russell, a one-woman reclamation project for classic jazz, blues and R&B from the twenties to the fifties, is all about having a good time, and her mood was infectious. After flourishing for decades as a back-up singer for some of the biggest names in music, including Steely Dan, Paul Simon, David Bowie, and many others, Russell is celebrating the release of her fifth CD since launching her solo career in 2006, Bring It Back. “I didn’t start recording my own albums until I was in my late forties,” she told WBGO’s Rhonda Hamilton in a pre-concert interview, “so it’s never too late!” The concert was webcast live on the Jazz at Lincoln Center website (www.jazz.org).
Her years as a supporting player have paid handsome dividends in confidence and performing chops, now that the spotlight is firmly on her. A versatile singer who evokes Bessie Smith one moment and Ruth Brown, Dinah Washington or Peggy Lee the next, she is capable of purring in a lower register that is as warm as cognac but can also hit clarion, Louis Armstrong-like high notes. What really makes her special, however, is not so much her technical gifts; it’s her innate sense of swing, mastery of phrasing and her actor’s ability to fully inhabit her lyrics.
Russell describes her years at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts as pivotal; “one of the best decisions I ever made,” she says. Studying acting was especially helpful with selecting material. “When I choose songs, I choose them first for the lyrics, because if I can’t tell the story, I can’t really sing the song,” she said.
Vintage jazz and R&B is in Russell’s blood: she was born to jazz royalty and proudly carries on the tradition. Her father, Luis Russell, was a big band leader who served as Armstrong’s musical director from 1935 to 1942, recording many hits for Decca. Her mother, Carline Ray, a Julliard-trained guitarist, bassist, composer and contralto, played guitar with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and Mary Lou Williams before becoming an in-demand studio bassist.
At Dizzy’s she featured several songs recorded by Armstrong and based on her father’s charts (“I’m Shooting High,” Harold Arlen’s “Public Melody Number One” and “Back O’ Town Blues”), as well as a song written by Mr. Russell for Satchmo but never recorded (“Lucille”). As on the new CD, she combined these swing classics with a potent infusion of hot-blooded blues and R&B from the late forties and fifties.
On “Bring It Back,” a Wynonie Harris track from 1952, Russell sashayed to the languid big band blues, swinging her hips and throwing her body into the lyric, “I love you like you love me/We make a real fine pair/But ain’t nothin’ shakin’ when the dawn starts breakin’/with me over here, and you over there.” In this number, as often during the evening, it was all about the tempo: slower than you might expect, generating a blues feel almost unknown in current popular music, but perhaps ripe for rediscovery (one can hope). Tenor saxophonist Andy Farber and guitarist/musical director Matt Munisteri deepened the groove with solos based in the blues.
Throughout the evening, the big-band arrangements, mostly by Farber, were inventive, swinging and played with panache by an excellent band. “You Got to Swing and Sway,” a dance tune from the thirties by Ida Cox, smartly re-packaged the rhythms of that era. On “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” Farber’s persuasive arrangement of the great Ellington song wittily included an instrumental section that quoted “Once In A While,” another hit of the era, which Armstrong had recorded with Russell’s father. On a stripped-down rendition of Fats Waller’s “You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb,” Russell was accompanied only by Mark Shane’s exemplary piano, skillfully evoking the stride master, and marvelous comping and soloing by guitarist Munisteri.
Russell’s reading of Al Hibbler’s classic ballad of seduction, “After the Lights Go Down Low,” yielded her biggest ovation of the night as she delivered a pleading, testifying, flat-out sexy performance that seemed to raise the temperature in the room by several degrees.
“A friend of mine turned me on to this Johnny Otis tune,” she said, introducing the nearly forgotten 1952 Esther Phillips hit “Aged and Mellow.” The friend was her sometime boss, Donald Fagen, who showed up to catch the evening’s second show. The hook, “I like my men like I like my whiskey / aged and mellow” – elicited a big laugh and a round of applause. Played at a leisurely pace, the tune was yet another advertisement for the pleasures of slowing the damn thing down, as well as a showcase for Russell’s dramatic talents.
It might be a pipe-dream to think that we’re due for a revival of this kind of entertaining, soul-satisfying big band singing. The crowd at Dizzy’s certainly seemed to go wild for it. One can always dream.
…with a 10-piece band; I’ll review for DownBeat. See the live webcast @ 7:15 http://ow.ly/tWp5Z