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Musical crossover
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Musical crossover

A voice that caused a cantor to cry, ‘Oh God!’

Singer Catherine Russell 
Singer Catherine Russell 

As a jazz and blues singer, Catherine Russell enjoys digging back through the archives of American music and rediscovering works that are seldom performed or recorded.

“I like songs that haven’t been done and have great stories, great melodies, and great harmonic structure. There are so many of them, and if I find something I like I will look to see when it was last recorded,” she told NJ Jewish News in an Oct. 29 phone interview from her home in Manhattan. 

Those unusual preferences have a special appeal for Cantor Janet Ilene Roth at Congregation Ohr Shalom-the Summit Jewish Community Center, who invited Russell to perform at her synagogue on Saturday evening, Nov. 15.

It will be Russell’s first performance in a synagogue and, said Roth, “it is the first concert that I’m producing for the shul that is not, in any way, really connected to the Jewish culture.”

“I am a cantor and a guardian of the Jewish musical tradition, but at the same time I believe the synagogue should be a center for culture. The first time I heard her I said ‘Oh, my God, I have to bring her here.’”

“I like singing in houses of worship. It is a good thing,” Russell told NJJN. “I’ve been to synagogues once or twice in my life, and for me, houses of worship are houses of worship. They are always anointed spiritual places where music is embraced, and we embrace the great American songbook, which has mostly Jewish writers.” 

The Grammy Award-winner will appear with her accompanist, pianist Mark Shane, who happens to be Jewish.

Russell is the daughter of two jazz musicians, big band leader Luis Russell and Carline Ray, a singer and guitarist who performed with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-female orchestra.

Russell grew up in Manhattan, the Bronx, and southern California before returning to New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. At first, she opted against following her parents’ footsteps into music. “I loved theater,” she said.

She performed in Off- and Off-Off Broadway productions in the 1980s. Her sole Broadway appearance was in Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which ran for 1,005 performances between 1985 and 1987.

As a full-time musician who sings and plays mandolin, piano, guitar, and percussion, she prefers songs associated with African-American artists written prior to 1960s. “Fats Waller, Big Mama Thornton, and Alberta Hunter are three of my favorites,” she said. She performed Crazy Blues, a 1920 song by Mamie Smith, in an episode of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.

Russell has played keyboards and sung back-up for such non-jazz artists as David Bowie, Steely Dan, and Cyndi Lauper. One of her more unusual incarnations was as a vocalist in a group called the Black Italians, a name dreamed up by leader Jimmy Vivino for his multiracial eight-piece rock band. “It was kind of a United Nations unit,” she said.

“I am a fan of all these artists, and their tours took me all over the world and I love traveling,” said Russell. “It was a great experience for me. Now I know how to tour, and I’ve been doing it for 30 years. In a vocalist’s career there may be several types of music happening simultaneously.” 

Among her recent trips was a fall tour of Siberia and six sold-out concerts last spring in the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv, Herzliya, and Modi’in. 

“It was her first visit to Israel,” wrote her husband and manager, Paul Kahn, in an e-mail to NJJN. “It was a wonderful experience and she thoroughly enjoyed the audiences, historic sights, and especially the food.”

Now in her mid-50s, Russell said she still enjoys the road, despite a grueling itinerary of long airplane flights and one-night stands. “I meet new people and see how they do things. The people are incredible, and black people are no longer strangers to them in many parts of the world. They love American music and they enjoy what we do.”

Russell finds “a lot more young people overseas who embrace older styles of music. They are more open to everything and love more styles of American music than Americans do.”

But, she feels, Jewish people have a special affinity for the jazz and the blues she performs.

“Jews have rhythm, you know what I mean?” she said. “Jews and music are kind of inseparable things — whatever genre of music it is. That is why black people and Jewish people understand one another.”

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