Jazz Album of the Week: Catherine Russell Reinvigorates Songs of the Swing Era on Alone Together

Mar 4, 2019

March 4, 2019. Catherine Russell is part singer, part musical anthropologist, part necromancer. On her new album, Alone Together, she breathes new, 21st-century-infused life into the Swing Era music of bandleaders like Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Louis Jordan, allowing us to travel back in time without leaving the present.

Her six albums to date have achieved both critical acclaim and brisk sales. Much of that has to do with her talent as a singer—it’s partly in the genes; Catherine’s father, Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong’s bandleader and music director in the 30s. But Russell is not just a singer; she’s an historian, a curator…and, yes, even something of a witch doctor—because every tune she touches is resurrected.

Leading off and playing center field is the album’s title track, “Alone Together,” a standard so indispensible to the jazz canon, interpreted by so many legends, from Art Blakey and Chet Baker to Ella and Paul Desmond, that it ups the stakes for a jazz musician. Which could be daunting, even for a great singer who just happens to lack Russell’s sense of history.

Russell might’ve been tempted to go pre-war with this one, perhaps an unadulterated channeling of Artie Shaw, but she elegantly splits the difference, producing a version that tips its cap to the song’s Swing Era origins and its evolution into a bop standard, while it veers off into it’s own third space, conjuring the jazz noir sound of folks like Terrence Blanchard.

Russell’s two Louis Jordan covers—“Early in the Morning” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” constitute the swinging center of Alone Together. The calypso-influenced “Early in the Morning,” is a natural attitude adjuster, perfect for that drive to work when any other destination would be preferable. Throw some Ray-Bans on and let this one do the work that, sometimes, even coffee isn’t able to do. The arrangement here by trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso is my favorite take on this one since Harry Nilsson’s.

Russell’s “Is You Is…,” while perhaps not quite as distinctive as, say, Dinah Washington’s, isn’t far off; it’s performed with that hard-to-strike combination of coolness and impatience that the song requires and is punctuated by strong solo work on tenor sax from Evan Arntzen and the same from Kellso on muted trumpet.

On “You Can’t Pull the Wool over My Eyes,” Russell channels The King of Swing, stylishly resuscitating the Benny tune from ’36.

Irving Berlin (“How Deep is the Ocean”) and Fats Waller (“You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew,” the album’s closer) are both accounted for, as well.

Alone Together is truly an if-these-walls-could-talk kind of collection. You can imagine these musical legends of pre-war America sitting around Irving Berlin’s piano in a Parisian café—expats singing, composing, carousing, eating baguette. Or, better yet, settle in and let Ms. Russell sing the legends into our here and now.