If you've never been to the Allen Room for Jazz at Lincoln Center, the first thing that strikes you is the 50 x 90-foot, floor-to-ceiling glass wall behind the stage/bandstand that offers a breathtaking view of Columbus Circle, the southwest entrance to Central Park, and the Manhattan skyline. At night, the atmosphere possesses an ethereal-like quality so perhaps on the evening of March 31, the spirit of Luis Russell was proudly gazing through the glass at his daughter Catherine, who was honoring his memory by singing the jazz and blues numbers he and Louis Armstrong transformed into American standards.
Catherine was only seven when her Panamanian-born father died in 1963, but based on her stunning performance at the Allen Room, she obviously possesses the musical genes (also thanks to her mother, the musician and vocalist Carline Ray). "It took my whole life to become an overnight sensation," the pixie-ish Russell sweetly quipped at the start of her set, her dreds tied together in a classy, retro bun. And a sensation she is, having garnered rave views on all four of her CDs (over just six years) after a long career as a backup singer, warm-up act, or studio vocalist for everyone from Paul Simon to Michael Feinstein to Robert Klein. By the end of her Allen Room show, Russell had clearly proven that she has become one of the finest interpreters of jazz and blues on the contemporary music scene.
Supported by a superb 10-piece orchestra (including six horn players), almost the entire first half of Russell's set was a tribute to songs her father recorded or performed with the great Satchmo from the late 1920s through the 1930s. (In 1935, Armstrong took over the Luis Russell Orchestra and fronted the group until 1943. Russell remained as piano player, arranger, and musical director.) From her very first three numbers-the bouncy "I'm Shooting High" (written by Ted Koehler and Jimmy McHugh), the languid "Ev'ntide (Hoagy Carmichael), and the rhythmic and brassy "Everybody Loves My Baby" (featuring the entire horn section)-Russell conveyed the sound and style of the iconic female big band singers of the pre-and post-World World II era, from Doris Day to Anita O'Day, Abbey Lincoln to Francis Langford, and Ella Fitzgerald to Helen Forrest, with some subtle shades of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington in her vocals.
Russell went beautifully bluesy on the Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields ballad "I'm In the Mood for Love," her smooth, unaffected articulation of the lyrics blending perfectly with the big band sound. (Catherine's rendition of this song definitely moved the "Alfalfa" Switzer version from The Little Rascals into second place on my list.). Russell then related how she needed Michael Feinstein's help locating the chart for the joyously jazzy Harold Arlen/Ted Kohler number "Public Melody #1" (recorded by Luis Russell and Armstrong in 1937, the same year it was sung by Martha Raye in the film Artists and Models). And on the romantic jazz standard "I Cover the Waterfront" (Johnny Green/Edward Heyman), popularized by Holiday and other singers in 1933, Russell created her own Make-Believe Ballroom. (For next page, click Page 2 below)