Catherine Russell On Piano Jazz Singer Catherine Russell shares stories of some of the lesser-known tunes of the 1930s and '40s performed by Mae West, Fats Waller and others. With accompanist Mark Shane, Russell performs "Troubled Waters" and Waller's "Inside This Heart of Mine."

Catherine Russell On Piano Jazz

Catherine Russell On Piano Jazz

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Catherine Russell. Stephen Falke hide caption

toggle caption
Stephen Falke

Vocalist Catherine Russell, a native New Yorker, has an unbelievable jazz pedigree. Her father, Luis Russell, was the longtime musical director for Louis Armstrong. (At a party, the 4-year-old Russell once sat on Satchmo's knee.) Her mother is Carline Ray, an ace bassist and vocalist with a deep jazz resume; she took young Catherine all around New York to hear everyone from blues singer Alberta Hunter to opera great Leontyne Price.

Set List

"Troubled Waters" (S. Coslow,  A. Johnson)

"We the People" (T. Waller, A. Razaf)

"Inside This Heart of Mine" (T. Waller, J.C. Johnson )

"As Long As I Live" (H. Arlen, T. Koehler)

"A Delicate Balance" (M. McPartland) —Jon Weber solo

"My Old Daddy’s Got a Brand New Way to Love" (T. Waller)

"The Late Late Show" (R. Alfred, M. Berlin)

"Deep in a Dream" (E. De Lange, J. Van Heusen)

"November" (P. Kahn)

"I'm Checkin' Out, Goombye" (D. Ellington,  B. Strayhorn)

Catherine Russell began her professional career singing backup for artists from Paul Simon and David Bowie to Rosanne Cash. As a solo artist, she has emerged as a fresh voice able to interpret practically all of the melodies in the Great American Songbook with heartfelt emotion. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, the dean of American jazz writers Nat Hentoff said, "It's a delight to hear the real thing in Catherine Russell." Rather than focusing on the usual standards, Russell has made it her passion to explore and revive the forgotten tunes of the 1930s and '40s performed by giants such as Fats Waller and Mae West.

On this Piano Jazz with guest host Jon Weber, Catherine Russell is accompanied by the Tin Pan Alley keyboard talents of Mark Shane for a set of tunes from Waller, Harold Arlen and more.

Russell starts the set with "Troubled Waters," a tune that appeared in the 1934 Mae West film Belle of the Nineties.

"I was digging through some tunes performed by Duke Ellington, and the chord changes and lyrics just grabbed me," Russell says. "When you listen, it can mean many different things."

West had enough clout to sing "Troubled Waters" with Ellington's band -- a breakthrough performance for a white singer and a black band in 1934. Russell continues with a couple of Fats Waller tunes: "We the People" is performed in typically entertaining Fats fashion, while "Inside This Heart of Mine" is a torch song that showcases Russell's vocal range.

The session continues with a delightful spin through "As Long As I Live," a tune originally sung by Lena Horne at the Cotton Club, and the blues song "My Old Daddy's Got a Brand New Way to Love."  Russell can belt out blues with the best, and she knows how to connect with the crowd -- a skill she picked up watching Alberta Hunter at The Cookery in New York.

"[Hunter] sang to every individual in the room, and she just had the best time," Russell says. "That was what I took away from seeing her when I was a young person."

Russell and accompanist Mark Shane pay tribute to this month with a namesake tune, "November," which was written in the 1990s but would fit within the poignant moments of a mid- to late-period Sinatra album. "I'm Checkin' Out, Goombye," featuring a classic vocal and jumping stride piano, ends the session on an upbeat note.