NEW YORK—The wonderful jazz and blues singer Catherine Russell brought her quartet to Zankel Hall for her Carnegie Hall debut. The show bore the title of her latest Grammy-nominated album, “Harlem on my Mind.” In her words, what she is singing is the Great African-American Songbook, mostly written between 1918 and the late 1950s.
Before each song, Russell explained the source and significance of the pieces, pointing out the legendary (or in some cases unfairly overlooked) vocalists whose recordings impressed her as well as the songwriters.
The concert began with a 1928 song from Ethel Waters and James P. Johnson performed as a duo with Mark Shane playing stride piano.
Then the rest of the band—music director and guitarist Matt Munisteri, bass player Tal Ronen and drummer Mark McLean—joined for a swinging rendition of the Gershwins’s “I Got Rhythm,” through which each band member got a chance to shine.
From the 1930s catalog of Fats Waller, Russell sang the playful “You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew.”
At various points in the concert, Russell displayed her prowess in the blues, performing different variations of the form. “Nothin’ but the Blues” (recorded by Dinah Washington) is an example of blues with a beat.
Two of Russell’s favorites—Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong—had performed the blithe “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me.” Russell and the group did this one with a lilting rhythm. Incidentally, Russell’s father, Luis Russell, was Armstrong’s longtime music director.
She paid tribute to the 1950s Apollo Theater appearance by Little Willie John, whose “Talk to Me” was probably an influence on Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.”
Then, it was back to the 1930s for “Swing Brother Swing” from Billie Holiday’s ebullient collaboration with elegant pianist Teddy Wilson.
Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low” featured a guitar solo by Munisteri with a flurry of blue notes and Clarence Williams’s “You’ve Got the Right Key but the Wrong Keyhole” had the audience in stitches with its double-entendre lyrics. Richard Whiting’s “When Did You Leave Heaven” was more notable for its melody than its treacly words.
The singer expressed her hope that Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz’s “Alone Together” would help us find solace in troubled times.
The lively “A Monday Date” was a piece that Satchmo performed from the 1920s until the end of his career.
The mesmerizing “You’re My Thrill” (recorded by Billie Holiday with strings) featured a rhapsodic piano solo by Mark Shane.
“Love Me or Leave Me” began as a duo between Russell and the bassist Tal Ronen but the others joined in later.
“Aged and Mellow” was another a slightly naughty blues number, performed in remembrance of the late Esther Phillips.
Russell showed off her ability to scat with “Swing It,” before ending with the title song of the show and her album, Irving Berlin’s “Harlem on My Mind.”
In response to the standing ovation, Russell and the band returned for the Gershwins’s “’S Wonderful.”
Never pass up a chance to see Catherine Russell, one of the most captivating jazz and blues singers in the world.
Other Noteworthy Jazz Performers at Carnegie Hall
“Stoltzman Sounds! A Celebration” at Zankel Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
Jazz guitarist Julian Lage on Dec. 5 also at Zankel Hall (a special notables only performance).
The New York Pops “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” with Megan Hilty at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 15, 2017 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 16 at 8 p.m.
Another series not to miss is Rosanne Cash’s American Byways concerts: Parker Millsap and Sara Watkins on Dec. 2 at 9 p.m. at Zankel Hall and Ruthie Foster and the North Mississippi Allstars on Feb. 3 at Zankel at 9 p.m.