If you like swinging, smart vocal jazz, you’ll like Catherine Russell, who also happens to have sparkling stage presence and impeccable jazz heritage.
Though I was mightily impressed by Catherine Russell’s way with a vintage song on her 2012 album “Strictly Romancin’,” nothing prepared me for how dynamic she would be on stage at New York’s Winter Jazzfest this past January.
Singing a sexy blues like Lil Green’s “In the Dark” or a barnburner like “Darktown Strutters Ball,” Russell was an absolute powder keg.
If you like swinging, smart vocal jazz presented in a rich, caramel alto with theatrical gusto — plus surprising, fun song choices — check out Russell on Tuesday and Wednesday at Jazz Alley.
7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, July 21-22, at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, 2033 Sixth Ave., Seattle; $28.50 (206-441-9729 or jazzalley.com).
“Acting school definitely helped,” said Russell of her sparkling stage presence, speaking from her home in New York.
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Born in 1956 and raised in Washington Heights and the Bronx, Russell attended the High School of Performing Arts in New York, where a Broadway production of “Bubblin’ Brown Sugar” inspired her to enroll at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
“I grew up singing in choirs,” she said, “so it was a question of whether I wanted to be a professional choral singer — my mom did that, too — or go to acting school and learning how to do everything.”
That Russell landed in the jazz world is no surprise. She comes from jazz royalty. Her mother was Carline Ray (1925-2013), one of the first top-notch female instrumentalists in jazz, and her father was Luis Russell (1902-1963), whose band Louis Armstrong fronted for a decade.
Russell’s most recent album, “Bring It Back!” features a lilting, long-lost love song written by her dad, “Lucille,” recently discovered in demo form in the Armstrong archives.
The push-pull between acting and singing wasn’t the only tussle in Russell’s life. Though she yearned to perform, she also found she “wasn’t naturally a person who liked to be the center of attention. I wanted to just study.”
You will not be surprised to learn, then, that for years Russell sang background, like the vocalists recently highlighted in the film “20 Feet from Stardom.”
It started when a friend invited her to do recording sessions in France, where she is highly revered, having won the Grand Prix du Hot Club de France for “Strictly Romancin’.” Since then, Russell has sung, toured and recorded with Donald Fagen, Paul Simon and Jackson Browne, among others. She was on the road with David Bowie for two years, from 2002-04.
“It was great working with him,” she recalled. “He let me do everything I could do — keyboard, guitar, mandolin, percussion. He even let me sing duet vocals with him. It was really, really great. He’s a gentleman.”
When Russell got home from the last tour with Bowie, she thought, “Now what? My friend Paul Kahn said, ‘You should really make an album. It’s time.’ ”
She put together 14 songs, went into a friend’s studio, Kahn invited some record-company folks to hear her, and bingo — her solo career was launched.
How many feet from stardom is Russell today? Hard to say. To date, she has made five albums, played major festivals around the world and has been praised by The Wall Street Journal as “the best blues and jazz singer going today.”
Her role as lead singer on the “Boardwalk Empire” soundtrack won her a 2012 Grammy award.
But the important part, she said, is that she’s having a good time.
“I love music, so you have to find a way to deal with yourself,” she said. “Acting definitely helped.”
If she continues to deliver dramatic live performances like that one in New York, she’ll be just a few inches from the center spotlight before you know it.