Review: Catherine Russell Is Thrilling In ‘Harlem On My Mind’ At Zankel Hall
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, November 6, 2017
As predicted, Catherine Russell’s Harlem On My Mind, this past Friday night at Zankel Hall, was….well, “thrilling” isn’t quite the right word: it was too happy and sweet for that, and maybe the Carnegie Hall demographic, heavily skewed towards graybeards like me, just doesn’t do “thrill,” as Russell slyly hinted in her setup to “Aged and Mellow.”
Russell may even have banked her fires a little bit, considering that this was her debut as a headliner at Carnegie—an opportunity “I never thought I’d get,” she said, “and I just want people to know how grateful and happy I am about it.” As it turned out, the feeling was entirely mutual: her audience listened with an attentive reverence normally reserved for Parsifal—that is, when they weren’t yipping for Russell’s inspired sidemen or shouting with delight at some of the more brilliant lyrics. (The response to “Junior may be young and stronger/But I’ll take grandpa cause he’s had it longer/I like my men like I like my whiskey/Mmmm, aged….” was certainly—shall we say?—vital.) Nobody wanted to leave, and there were two distinct standing ovations.
I won’t take you through the blow-by-blow—much of it’s on Russell’s Grammy-nominated album of the same title, and it’ll all be different the next time she does it, anyway—but I have to tell you, in some detail, about her performance-style, which is one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen, and I have lived a long time and I have studied a lot of performance-styles.
Russell is tiny, but she stands foursquare, faces straight out, moves within a narrow ambit, and has magnificent posture, as if she’s constantly levitating into the music. She holds her microphone quietly, and in effect invisibly, in her left hand, while using her right hand as a separate, parallel expressive instrument, infinitely fluent yet minutely precise. Her voice is laser-bright, warmed with the tiniest hint of vibrato. Her pitch and her diction are pinpoint-perfect, but there’s no fuss: she voices precisely what she means, fully but with no leftovers, and she knows exactly where to stop. Her finals are brilliantly arranged and crisply executed, with no petering-out or floating off into vamps. She goes for the conventional sustained high-note only when it’s musically necessary and emotionally right: there were only two of them in the whole program, and they were—Here! I’ll say it!—thrilling.
Her approach to material is at once rigorous and loving. Not a songwriter or a significant recording-artist goes uncredited, and this implicitly drives home an essential point about the very bedrock of American popular song: that it was created by an accidental coastal élite of writers and performers based in New York and Hollywood, who were themselves either immigrants and refugees, or the children of immigrants and refugees—specifically, by a unique confluence of internal migrants fleeing racial oppression in our own “heartland,” and refugees from religious upheaval and ethnic hatreds abroad. (And if you think I’m describing current conditions rather than the period between the two world wars, I’m sorry, but it’s the simple truth. Still, if any man have ears to hear, let him hear.)
Russell’s not perfect—her voice can go a little thready in soft, sustained passages—but she manages what fiddling shortcomings she has so well that they become part of her expression, and her expression is well-nigh peerless. She didn’t go very deep on this pass—although this and especially this suggest what she’s capable of—but so what? It was a brilliant program, richly varied within thoughtfully-conceived limits, and you will rarely hear a storytelling blues as good as this one, or R&B as smooth and lovely as this, or much of anything as purely delightful as this.
The band was bliss.
There were a few empty seats. Where were you? Did you not believe me?
Harlem On My Mind presented at Zankel Hall on November 3, 2017. Catherine Russell, vocalist; Matt Munisteri, music director and guitar; Mark Shane, piano; Tal Ronen, bass; Mark McLean, drums.
ETHEL WATERS & JAMES P. JOHNSON Guess Who’s in Town?
GEORGE & IRA GERSHWIN I Got Rhythm
JOE BURKE & HAROLD SPINA You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew
LOUIS JORDAN Early in the Mornin’
CLARENCE GASKILL & JIMMY McHUGH I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me
JOE SENECA Talk to Me
WALTER BISHOP, LEWIS RAYMOND & CLARENCE WILLIAMS Swing! Brother, Swing!
BENNY CARTER & SPENCER WILLIAMS When Lights Are Low
RICHARD A. WHITING & WALTER BULLOCK When Did You Leave Heaven?
HOWARD DIETZ & ARTHUR SCHWARTZ Alone Together
EARL HINES My Monday Date
JAY GORNEY & SIDNEY CLARE You’re My Thrill
WALTER DONALDSON & GUS KAHN Love Me or Leave Me
CLARENCE WILLIAMS & EDDIE GREEN You Got the Right Key, Baby, But the Wrong Keyhole
JOHNNY OTIS & PRESTON LOVE Aged and Mellow
SAMMY CAHN & JULE STYNE Send Me
IRVING BERLIN Harlem On My Mind
GEORGE & IRA GERSHWIN ’S Wonderful
Cover: Catherine Russell (foreground) with Tal Ronen on upright acoustic bass (background) at ‘Harlem On My Mind’ concert at Zankel Hall; photo: © 2017 Jack Vartoogian/Front Row Photos.