Catherine Russell is a music lover’s dream vocalist. Whether it’s pop, rock, jazz or soul, Russell sings them all with her unique brand of creative versatility.
Popular for years as a background singer, her voice is heard on more than 200 albums behind artists such as Madonna, David Bowie, Steely Dan and Cyndi Lauper. But the accolades increased one-hundred-fold when she went solo in 2006 and since then, crowds have consistently filled venues for her concerts.
Russell will perform in Southern California on March 23, for two shows – 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. – at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. As in the past, packed audiences are expected to hear her repertoire featuring songs from the 1920s to the present.
Describing her gift to moving effortlessly between genres, Russell admitted it’s really no big mystery. “I like anything I like, so it doesn’t really matter what the genre is. If I like the sound of it and I think it’s good and the songs are well written, it’s a joy to study them and the different vocabulary and the types of music,” she said.
As the offspring of music royalty, her reasoning makes perfect sense. Her father, the late Luis Russell, was a legendary pianist/composer/bandleader, and Louis Armstrong’s long-time musical director. Her mother, Carline Ray, was a pioneering vocalist/guitarist/bassist who performed with International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Mary Lou Williams, and Sy Oliver. In light of her roots, she was exposed to all types of music from a very young age.
“I started singing professionally when I was about nine. My mother got me involved in doing children’s educational recordings. I didn’t plan that. She was working with the same choral contractors that I hired children to do these jobs, so I was recommended for it and that’s how it started,” recalled Russell.
After graduating with honors from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, she toured the world, singing backup for a range of musically diverse artists including Donald Fagen, Carrie Smith, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Michael Feinstein, Levon Helm and Rosanne Cash. Those experiences resulted in her learning from top performers as well as perfecting her versatility.
“I’ve had many mentors – my mother and all of the people that I’ve backed up over the years, from Donald Fagan to David Bowie to Cyndi Lauper to Jackson Browne,” said Russell, who won a Grammy in 2012 for her cover of the 1920s song, “Crazy Blues,” from HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
“I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of iconic musicians and I learned from everybody. I grew up going to hear opera stars as well as jazz icons and all types of people and all kinds of music, plays and musicals and I learned from everything.”
But moving from the background to the front required some adjustments, she noted. Although she had led songs while singing with various bands, Russell had not been a headliner before.
“The issue for me was carrying the show – having my name on the ticket and getting comfortable with what I wanted to say or not say, transitions between tunes and things like that. That was really the learning curve,” said Russell.
Clearly, she learned well because her albums have enjoyed rave reviews including a 2017 Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album for her sixth compilation, “Harlem On My Mind.” In March 2019, Russell released her seventh project, “Alone Together,” which will likely continue her winning streak.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Russell is already gathering material for her next release as well as preparing to perform a Cole Porter program with the Philly Pops Orchestra. Next month, she will appear with the John Pizzarelli Trio in “Billie and Blue Eyes,” a show comprised of Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday tunes.
But first, Russell must complete her debut at Segerstrom Center for the Arts and it’s a performance she anticipating with pleasure.
“I haven’t performed at this venue before, so I’m looking forward to having a good time,” she said.
“I think this show will attract young people who like old material and older people who remember the material. Sometimes parents bring their kids and a lot of families come out to hear us, so that’s encouraging!”
Single tickets start at $69 and are available at the box office, by calling (714) 556-2787, or online at SCFTA.org. Discounts are available for groups of 10 or more.