Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Practice--Jazz Medicine (excerpt from Whole Music Soul Food for the Mind Body Spirit)

Django Reinhardt, Wikipedia

(This excerpt comes from chapter 12, "Catching the Coletrane" of Whole Music Soul Food for the Mind Body Spirit)

Jazz Medicine 

The story of jazz contains just as many tragedies as it does moments of elation.  Jazz musicians in general have personal history and early African-American jazz players in particular, carried the added weight of injustice, racism, illness, and addiction in the competitive music industry.  Societies in the west color any genre of music hailing from Africa with prejudices.  Early jazz as it emerged in the US and arrived in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was viewed as a novelty in some cases, and primal in other cases giving listeners the license to adopt destructive practices (consumption of alcohol, loosening of sexual morals and exploring the seedier side) as portrayed in Jeffrey H. Jackson’s book, Making Jazz French.

However, even local-grown European musicians harnessed the power of jazz to bring healing to their lives.  Belgium-born gypsy Django Reinhardt lost two of his fingers in a fire when he was a teenager.  Despite his loss, which was greater than disfigurement, Reinhardt mastered guitar with his remaining fingers while creating a new style of playing that launched him into gypsy swing or French jazz fame along with violinist St├ęphane Grappelli.  And all of this happened between the two world wars and during the second one, not an easy time for gypsies.

However, when we listen to Reinhardt swing with his quintet, we don’t think about tragic events or WWII.  We lose ourselves in the jangling guitar, the gypsy violin, and the danceable rhythms.  It’s as if the heavens opened and gave the gift of jazz to humankind to endure hard times, from Latin jazz players in Brooklyn to early African American jazz pioneers, and to the European players on the wrong side of a war.  It’s true that some types of jazz carry blue notes and sentiments that add to catharsis, but with jazz ballads we can empathize with a singer whose situation matches our own experiences.  With swing, samba, or other types of Latin jazz we lose ourselves when we get up and dance.

Jazz vocalist Trish Hatley shared such a moment in a 2012 e-mail interview.  As Hatley drove on a highway in Phoenix, feeling in a funk, she tuned her radio to a jazz station playing Brazilian music and after hearing songs by Jobim, Karin Allison and Diana Krall.  Hatley’s elation caused her to pull her car into a parking lot where she climbed out and danced.

“I felt it in every part of my body and being… the dance floor was huge, my arms were swinging, my hips were gyrating and I just moved to the Brazilian music.  Then a big powerful swing number by Oscar Peterson came on, now I was in ecstasy! It was like the music had just shifted into high.  The swing was going through every little cell, I was movin’ and groovin’, I was dancing…I was oh so happy! It was completely physical, completely emotional! What a hit of adrenaline! 

I climbed back into my car and for the short drive home I talked to myself about the need for music in my life.  How have I abandoned it lately? It is such an up-lifter, a mood-changer…I would have worked myself out of this frump if I had used music to elevate my mood, my life.  I woke this morning and put on another Brazilian favorite Elaine Elias…again I danced and moved all over the house, smiling and singing for over fifteen minutes until I had to go.  This stuff is good! Music should be a staple in everyone’s life…whatever their flavor.”

I have been there too, so depressed that I couldn’t get out of my head then I walked into a cafe playing jazz and suddenly my mood shifted.  However, the difference between a jazz musician such as Hatley and me is she feels the music inside out because she has recorded some of the jazz standards she hears on the radio on her own seven recordings.  In addition, Hatley’s mother (a bassist) played in swing bands when Trish was in utero. 

“My mother played music up until her eighth month of pregnancy with me.  I truly believe that this had a total effect on me.  I joke about how “I came out swinging.”  But it isn’t a joke…it is reality.  Music that swings absolutely moves me physically.  My mother was playing in a big band then...While she wasn’t a fancy bass player she swung so hard that it was totally enough.  That is the gift she gave me. I have the total need to feel that swing…it has got to swing! It is cellular, it is totally physical!”

While I don’t own any of Hatley’s swing albums, her interpretation of jazz standards that appear on her On the Quiet Side dazzle.  She shaped the melodies of Hoagy Carmichael’s I Get Along without You Very Well, Ivan Lins Love Dance, and Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life (songs we hear often on jazz recordings) by infusing her own feelings into the songs.  However, Hatley’s version of Michel Legrand’s You Must Believe in Spring causes my eyes to mist every time I hear her sing it.  Hatley experienced the song on an even deeper level.

“So much of it is about the melody with its luscious chord changes, the tempo, and space within the notes.  This can all be felt physically.  Then when you add the lyrics, if you can relate to them, the depth of it can be so very heartfelt that the gift is, you transfer this to your audience. It’s so beautiful how just a chord change or one line out of a song can literally knock you over. Even as I write this and feel this thought, I’m placing both hands over my heart…it’s heartfelt.”

copyright 2013 Patricia Herlevi 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

In Conversation--Jazz Chanteuse Catherine "Cat" Russell

Harmonia Mundi/Jazz Village

Bringing Back to the Classics: A Conversation with Catherine Russell

The first time I heard Catherine Russell sing was when her 2010 Jazz Village CD, Inside This Heart of Mine arrived at my mailbox.  The songs, all thoughtfully chosen blues and jazz classics, delighted me and had my feet tapping while I reviewed the recording.  November hit the spot with its warm acoustic guitar, accordion, violin, and Russell’s soulful alto vocals wrapping around each word, like a winter scarf.  The send-ups All Cats Join In, We The People and Just Because You Can also had staying power.

On the follow-up album, Strictly Romancin’, again Russell treated her happy listeners to toe-tapping classics Wake Up and Live and Satchel Mouth Baby as well as, bluesy ballads Under the Spell of the Blues and Don’t Leave Me.  She sang romantic ballads too such as I’m in the Mood for Love.
Bring it Back, Russell’s latest recording, features a bigger sound with horn arrangements, piano, bass, drums and a Hammond B-3 organ with more blues-jazz ballads, swinging numbers (Ida Cox’ You Got to Swing and Sway) and a delightful surprise, Lucille, penned by Luis Russell (Catherine’s father) for Louis Armstrong, but never recorded until now.  She also delivers powerful vocals on songs by Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Ted Koehler/Harold Arlen and others.
The daughter of two jazz legends (Luis Russell and Carline Ray), Russell keeps her parents’ legacy alive and kicking as well as, delivering her own signature vocals to jazz and blues favorites.  It was my pleasure to interview Catherine by e-mail. 
Whole Music Exp: What was it like growing up in a household with parents esteemed in the jazz world? Did you think or know at an early age that you would pursue a career as a vocalist? 
Catherine Russell: Ha ha! That's actually two questions! Growing up with musical parents was great because there was music in the household all the time. My Dad used to sit at the piano and practice classical music. There were many instruments in the house including a grand piano, Hammond organ, my mother's electric bass and guitars, and my grandpa's violin and mandolin. My mother was either going to rhythm & blues recording sessions (which she took me to sometimes), or going to classical choral rehearsals which I also got to attend. They were both into all kinds of music so that's probably where I get my varied musical taste from. 
I had no idea that I would end up being a professional vocalist. I was too shy to want to be the center of attention, but I always had a good ear for music. Actually, I was a professional dancer as a child before I started studying music. 
WME: You started out singing backup for pop singer Cyndi Lauper, rock singers David Bowie and Jackson Browne and country singer Rosanne Cash to name a few artists. Were you also performing jazz or blues before venturing into a solo jazz vocalist career? How did you finally take the leap to recording the five albums on Jazz Village/Harmonia Mundi?

CR: I love back-up singing and still do. I grew to want a career in music when I discovered it was the only thing I thought I might be good at, and I started singing with different bands in the clubs in New York City. This eventually led to back-up singing on tours and recordings. It's fun to sing with all these great artists! I was encouraged to make my first album when I returned home from David Bowie's tour in 2004. I wouldn't have pursued a solo career, but everything fell into place and I got the support from my manager and Harmonia Mundi to continue making albums.

WME: Your style marries speakeasy jazz to swing, blues and New Orleans jazz. I’m sure there’s more going on that my ears haven’t detected so how would you describe your repertoire? And which style do you find the most pleasurable to explore vocally?

CR: I think you summed it up well. All these styles flow together, so I love them all and I can't say that I favor one over the other. I just like good songs and music that I feel sounds good. So that, I believe, is the thread.

WME: Bring it Back has a “big” sound with the horn arrangements the piano, bass, drums, and features mostly upbeat numbers. But then you slow it down on songs such as I Cover The Waterfront. Which songs are more challenging to sing, the slow ones oozing emotions or the ones that swing or the blues which you belt out?

CR: I choose songs that challenge me generally, so they all bring different things out of me. They make me use my voice to express whatever the story of the song is. So if it's slow and romantic, that's how I feel when I sing it. If it's up tempo and I feel like dancing, that's how I express it.

WME: I have noticed with the three albums I’ve heard of yours that you put a lot of thought and exploration into each album’s tracks and on Bring it Back, intriguing stories accompany some of the song choices such as the discovery of your father’s song, “Lucille” which he composed for Louis Armstrong, but was never recorded until now. Do you feel by performing this song that you carry on a legacy?

CR: Definitely! I feel like I went into the "Family Business" so to speak. I'm happy about that because I continue to get to know my parents. The discovery and recording of "Lucille" is just what my Dad would have wanted, because he was a songwriter working on getting his songs heard. And what a great song!