No short snort

Catherine Russell brings back the swing cats’ ball


Everyone loves Duke Ellington, but few of his fans have heard his 1940s gem “Long, Strong and Consecutive,” with lyrics like this: “Kiss me long, strong and consecutive; no short snort will suit me, jack.”

Everyone can picture Mae West camping and vamping it up, but it’s a shock to hear her plumb the depths of “Troubled Waters,” a virtual suicide note set to music, in a 1930s recording with Ellington.

Vocalist Catherine Russell, coming to Wharton Center’s Pasant Theatre with her crack combo Tuesday, has recorded both tunes, and hundreds more, many all but forgotten for nearly a century.

You could call her a musical paleontologist, digging up the bones of great swing, jazz, blues and R&B tunes from the 1920s to the 1950s, only she goes further. She gives these dinosaurs the full “Jurassic Park” treatment and brings them to romping, roaring life.

Jazz legend Louis Armstrong dandles a young Catherine Russell, circa 1960. Luis Russell, Catherine’s dad, was Armstrong’s musical director.
Jazz legend Louis Armstrong dandles a young Catherine Russell, circa 1960. Luis Russell, Catherine’s dad, was Armstrong’s musical director.

Russell likes to think her dad, pioneering Panamanian composer and bandleader Luis Russell, would dig what she’s doing.

“His music is some of the first music I ever heard when I was a little kid,” Russell said. “The thing I liked about it, not knowing anything and being a 3-year-old, is that it was fun to listen to and fun to dance to.”

Luis Russell’s heyday as a bandleader was in the 1920s through the 1940s, often working with Louis Armstrong and serving an eight-year stint as Armstrong’s musical director.

“Everybody sounded like they were having fun playing,” Russell said. “It was bouncing and dancing, and it swung. It just sounded like fun to me.”

In the 1960s, Russell, 67, took to rock ‘n’ roll like almost everyone else. She’s grateful that her mother, Carline Ray, let her blast Led Zeppelin to her heart’s content.

Ray, a jazz pianist and singer, worked with legends like Mary Lou Williams and performed with a pioneering all-woman band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Early in her career, Russell sang with rock icons Paul Simon, David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper and Steely Dan, but with her musical pedigree, it was inevitable that she returned to her roots.

“I’m not a kid,” Russell said. “I’m kind of done with being concerned with whatever the next thing is. I can’t sing like that. I find songs I like, that I like the history of.”

Like an obsessed beachcomber, she listens to the radio, pores through artists’ catalogs and hangs out with the Hot Club of New York, an early music appreciation group that meets and listens to old records.

“They’re well written, they have nice melodies and nice harmonic structures, they’re fun to play, fun to sing, and they’re mostly universal themes,” she said.

She dusts off these old gems and sings them with a joyful sense of discovery as if the ink was still wet on the score. In her NPR Tiny Desk Concert, she sent a few thousand volts into a delicious breakup song full of passive-aggressive vinegar, “My Dog Was Yours,” recorded in 1923 by blues singer Rosa Henderson. In her 2008 album “Sentimental Streak,” Russell sunk her teeth into Bessie Smith’s “Kitchen Man,” a lusty buffet of food-and-sex double entendres. The title track of Russell’s 2022 album, “Send For Me,” is a rocking gospel-blues tune recorded (rather starchily) by Nat King Cole.

It might be heresy to say this, but Russell’s take is more lively and engaging than Cole’s.

As she explained it, the songs she favors were crafted differently from those of the rock and post-rock era.

 “I’m not saying I don’t love James Taylor and Paul Simon and Elvis Costello and all the great songwriters of our time,” she said, “but once we got into singer-songwriters, that’s a different thing.”

She works hard to “embody” the lyrics but doesn’t open a vein and bleed on you.

“It isn’t really about me,” she said. “Good acting, good theater, is about the play, the character, what the playwright’s intention is. You have good material to start with. What can you put on top of that?”

About 15 years ago, shortly before her mother died, Russell made the most surprising musical discovery of her life.

“My mother had a lot of stuff, a lot of closets in her apartment,” she said. “This one — I never looked into before.”

She opened the closet and found the shelves nearly collapsing from a trove of letters, photographs and business contracts from her dad’s big band days. Tucked underneath were acetate and glass recordings that had been on the shelf for decades.

The discs captured lively evenings at the Grand Terrace In Chicago in the 1930s, with Louis Armstrong playing and announcing, along with recordings of Luis Russell’s orchestra. She and her husband, producer Paul Kahn, had the discs restored and digitized into a CD, “At the Swing Cats’ Ball: Recordings From the Closet.”

Volume Two, with 1940s Luis Russell big band tracks and other nuggets, is forthcoming. It’s a painstaking task, but bringing great old music back to life is Russell’s passion, especially where her father is concerned.

“We’ll be doing this for the rest of our lives,” she said with a laugh.

Russell brings a top-notch band to the Pasant Theatre, led by her longtime collaborator, guitarist Matt Munisteri, along with Ben Paterson on piano, Tal Ronen on bass, and Dominick Branch on drums.

The songs will come from her already overflowing catalogue of recordings, but she’ll likely unveil a few newly polished gems vying for inclusion in her next album.

“It’s like putting on a pair of shoes,” she said. “You’ve got to wear those shoes a little bit.”

A live concert is not only a chance to work out the arrangements, but also to see how the songs go over with an audience.

“There are 5 billion songs,” she said. “If it doesn’t work, try something else.”


Catherine Russell

Tuesday, April 16

7:30 p.m.

Wharton Center Pasant Theatre

750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing


(517) 432-2000


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