Harlem On Her Mind: Catherine Russell will sing songs from the great African-American songbook at McCarter Theatre

Catherine Russell will perform songs written by

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Catherine Russell will perform songs written by

By Keith Loria
   Singer Catherine Russell has long been a force on the stage, and has been a favorite of McCarter audiences for years. The Grammy winner is often referred to as one of the best blues and jazz singers performing today, and whether singing vintage songs or standards, her voice is a soulful instrument that radiates interpretive power, yet remains touchingly vulnerable.
   She returns to McCarter, Oct. 22, for a night promising new arrangements and songs her audience hasn’t heard her perform before.
   ”The last time we were there, we brought ‘Ladies Sings the Blues,’ which was three singers singing music from the ‘20s to the ‘40s, but this time I’m supporting my new album, which is still a collection of old songs, but different,” Ms. Russell says. “I’m bringing a trio of bass, guitar and piano. We love to swing and have a good time and we look forward to seeing people come out in Princeton.”
   The album, “Harlem on My Mind: Songs from the Great African American Songbook” features tunes written or performed by Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Alberta Hunter, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Mary Lou Williams, and others.
   ”I always choose material by the story of the song, and what I chose are great African-American artists who are singing a combination of standards mixed with blues, and different performers who worked in Harlem quite a bit,” she says. “We are living life and we must renew ourselves and I like to bring attention to songs that may not (have been) heard in the last 50, 60, 70 years.”
   Ms. Russell says she’ll also mix the program with songs from her other albums, as well as some tunes from that era that she has not recorded.
   ”These are great songs and I want to share them with people,” she says. “I love to perform. It’s thrilling and very fulfilling to me. As an artist and performer, this career kind of chooses you. I’ve been performing all my life and it’s a lot of work and organizing and preparation, but if you want to be successful at anything, that’s what you have to do.”
   It’s no surprise that Ms. Russell is the accomplished singer she is today. Her dad, Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong’s musical director from 1935 to 1943; and her mother, Carline Ray, performed with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-female orchestra, during WWII, and has performed with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Jazz Center Orchestra.
   ”They taught me to be as organized as you could possibly be,” she says. “They taught me to treat your band personnel with respect, and carry yourself with dignity and be prepared. They were both very good at organizing and preparation.”
   Still, even though she loved to sing, Ms. Russell wasn’t always sure she was going to be a professional singer. She worked in computers, was proficient in acting, dancing and sports, and even did some film editing. Eventually, she realized that singing was the direction she wanted to explore.
   Once she did, one of her first regular gigs was in between sets at Catch a Rising Star in New York. Russell was allowed to sing for 15 minutes and pick three tunes in between comedy acts.
   ”The first song would be an up-tempo soul tune,” she says. “The second would be some kind of blues or a ballad and then the third would be an up-tempo tune, and I wouldn’t finish the song. The band would keep playing and I’d say, ‘Good night everybody’ and leave the stage.”
   Over the years, she’s made a name for herself on the jazz circuit and is highly in demand at clubs all around the country.
   ”I came up when there were many venues to perform in so I could go and sing someplace any night, as there were open mics, bands playing, more recording session opportunities,” Ms. Russell says. “For someone coming up today, I think it’s harder to develop these days, and I have students who are having a harder time finding ways to get their music out. You do have to work a little harder these days.”
   Although she’s touring for a new album, Ms. Russell is already hard at work on her next recording.
   ”As soon as I finish one, I am on the road to getting the next one ready,” she says. “I’ve already started gathering material, and the direction is starting to come to me. I’d love to have strings on the album in some form. That’s how it all starts and we’ll see where it takes me.”
Catherine Russell will perform at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, Oct. 22, 8 p.m. Tickets cost $65; mccarter.org; 609-258-2787.