Artists sometime take circuitous routes to find their callings. In the case of singer Catherine Russell, her direction was ultimately genetic. Father was Panamanian pianist Luis Russell, whose big band was fronted by Louis Armstrong in the 1930s. Mother was the respected jazz vocalist and legit bassist Carline Ray, whose many musical stops included the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the pioneering all-woman big band.
Catherine's sixth album, "Harlem on My Mind" (Jazz Village) is a loving homage to a panoply of classic, though sometimes unjustly obscure, songs that range from risque blues ("You've Got the Right Key But the Wrong Keyhole") to Billie Holiday's "Swing! Brother, Swing!" to ballads like "The Very Thought of You." Her triumph is Russell's natural, unforced way with a song, and the personal touch she brings to it. She's scrupulously faithful to the tone of the lyric and avoids the hot-mama affectations that betray so many contemporary singers when addressing traditional material. In this, she virtually stands alone on today's jazz landscape.
Russell joins Michael Feinstein and the Pasadena Pops Orchestra for their summer series Saturday at the L.A. County Arboretum in Arcadia. It will be her third featured appearance with the band.
Born of the rock generation, Russell was a Grateful Dead fan whose first aspiration was rock diva — somewhere between Janis Joplin and Tina Turner. Singing background vocals for David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper and Steely Dan has been fine as far as it goes. But sitting in with swing era veteran trumpeter Doc Cheatham's band at a Greenwich Village club in the mid 1980s provided an epiphany for Russell.
"I was singing those old songs that I'd grown up with around the house," she recalls from her New York City home. "The songs had such good structural craft — in the verse, in the bridge, in the rhyme and the internal rhyme — that I realized the great depth in them. And that they can be personalized by anyone who cares to perform them sincerely."
Her history with Feinstein began as a back-up singer for his annual holiday shows at Lowe's Regency in New York in 2007. Subsequent shows at Zankel Hall and on the Jazz at Lincoln Center schedule brought them closer. "Michael has been a mentor to me," Russell maintains. "I've learned a lot from him. We've done theme shows together, like the music of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Ethel Waters and Yip Harburg."
Lest you think of Russell as some kind of singer of odd antiquities, hear her subtly intense reading of Henry Nemo's evergreen, "Don't Take Your Love From Me" on "Harlem on My Mind." She takes the song at its customary languid tempo and lets it quietly build, chorus after chorus, without histrionics or vocal filler of any kind. The song is timeless, and she honors its integrity while leaving her own thumbprint on it. The performance stands with the best of what comes from today's poll-winning jazz singers.
Nemo, a larger-than-life character, lived in the Pacific Palisades before his 1999 passing. He wrote three standards ("Don't Take Your Love," "Tis Autumn" and the lyrics to Duke Ellington's "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart") a couple of Cotton Club revues with Ellington and dozens of other tunes. Russell has family history with the number. "My father recorded 'Don't Take Your Love' with his last big band in the '40s," she points out.
She credits TV variety shows as a source of good singing models. "I watched them all," Russell concedes, "and I saw Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Eydie Gorme, Marilyn Maye — there was so much to learn from their vocal technique."
"Chops are fine," she concludes, "but you can hide in that technique. The story in any good song will carry you through if you let it."
What: Catherine Russell with the Pasadena Pops
Where: L.A. County Arboretum, 301 Baldwin Ave., Arcadia
When: Saturday, Aug. 20, 7:30 p.m.
More info: (626) 793-7172