Catherine Russell Breathes Jazzy Vitality Into Lesser-Known Cover Songs Via ‘Send For Me’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Incomparable jazz vocalist, Catherine Russell. returns with her eighth album as a leader, Send For Me, featuring thirteen newly recorded tunes that only a musicologist of her ilk would assemble in one statement. Like the previous seven, this has her trademark mix of vintage blues, romantic ballads, swing era pop, and early R&B tunes.  This time out the songs skew a bit more toward the ‘40s and ‘50s than her typical focus on the ‘20s and ‘30s – but not by much. 

As she typically does, Russell augments her road-tested quintet with additional players on horns but leaves the strings out this time. Her band, including guitarist/musical director Matt Munisteri, pianist Mark Shane, bassist Tal Ronen, and drummer Mark McLean gain additional support from pianist Sean Mason (who plays on the tracks that Shane does not), trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, trombonist John Allred, multi-reedist Evan Arntzen, and additional saxophonists on select tracks – Paul Nedzela (baritone), Mark Lopeman (tenor), Aaron Helck (tenor). Philip Norris plays tuba on “Going Back to New Orleans.”

If you’ve ever been struck by a type of music or song you had never heard before, you can likely relate to Russell’s story about the opening “Did I Remember.” Russell claims to have been at a party where the host was playing vintage swing music, including a Billie Holiday collection. When she heard the lyric, “Did I remember to tell you I adore you” she was indelibly struck. 

On the other hand, you’ve probably heard the title track, made popular by Nat King Cole. “Send For Me” became a crossover hit in 1957, reaching #1 on the U.S. R&B charts, and #6 on the U.S. Pop Chart. In the liners, Russell mentions that most people don’t think of Nat King Cole as a blues singer. Russell absolutely wails on this one, described by Cole on a TV show as his first contribution to rock n’ roll. 

The vintage swing era “At The Swing Cats Ball” also has a strong family connection.  Although her dad never recorded it, Russell found a live version performed by her dad’s orchestra on a radio broadcast and they re-arranged it for this smaller combo.  The tempo changes dramatically into slow-burning sultry tones as Russell gorgeously renders “Make It Last,” most associated with Betty Carter from 1958. The original was arranged by trombonist Melba Liston with whom Russell’s mother had worked. Russell also has long-lasting impressions from her youth when she witnessed a Betty Carter performance. “Going Back To New Orleans” was written and originally recorded by Joe Liggins, who shared bills in the late 1940s separately with each of her parents, before they met in 1955. The tune stands out instrumentally due to the banjo solo from Munisteri and the tuba contributions of Philip Norris.

“If I Could Be With You” is a strong one also for banjo as well as the trombone, and, of course, piano (played by Mason) as it was written by James P. Johnson, the father of Harlem stride piano, who taught Fats Waller. Russell then goes four decades later, covering the New Orleans blues/soul singer/guitarist Earl King’s “You Can Fly High,” featuring Shane’s rollicking piano and a rousing three-piece horn section of Kellso, Allred, and Arntzen. The romantic mid-tempo ballad “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)” has been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra. Here it becomes the perfect vehicle for Munisteri’s wonderful picking and upright bassist Ronen’s plucking.  

Russell turns sultry again on “In The Night,” buoyed by bluesy piano from Mason and JLCO baritone saxophonist Nedzela in a tune that Russell first heard vocalist Dakota Staton sing on an album with George Shearing. “You Stepped Out of a Dream” is another nod to ‘50s era Nat King Cole while the aptly named “Blue and Sentimental” traces to Count Basie, Mack David, and Jerry Livingston. “Sticks and Stones” is not, as some might guess, the Ray Charles tune. It comes from a 1937 recording from New Orleans trumpeter and vocalist Henry Red Allen, who played with her dad. From the opening notes, it swings harder than any cut here with stellar turns from Shane, Kellso, Allfred, and Arntzen. Finally, Russell and the band go out on a healing note, bringing this swinging party to a close with the rare “Million Dollar Smile,” never recorded in the studio but only live by Dinah Washington. Pianist Mason and guitarist Munisteri, along with an especially emphatic Russell’s last lyric, “Thank you for your million dollar smile” makes for a stunning exit.  

Russell once again breathes vitality into these terrific, mostly lesser-known songs, guiding us on a journey through the origins and key mileposts of blues and jazz like no one else can. Simply put, Russell has no peers.

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