When Catherine Russell joined the instrumental trio on stage Thursday night at Jimmy Mak’s, she tied together a lustrous scene. In front of plush red curtains, a thick velvety backdrop that looked sturdy enough to support her if she fell back, the jazz vocalist from New York sparkled in the loose lace of a black dress, reminiscent of women’s “flapper” fashion which was popular when most of the jazz classics she sings were composed. The soft-eyes of the bassist behind her were shadowed by the brim of a beret; the guitarist with a trimmed, all-white beard matching the white of his salt and pepper hair; the pianist in all black – the group looked sharp. Glamorous and gracious, thrilled and prepared.
Catherine Russell hails from New York City and a background of music that reaches far back, to as early as she can remember I imagine because both of her parents were devoted to the scene and musical discipline before she was born. Her father, Louis Russell, was Louis Armstrong’s musical director and her mother, Carline Ray, studied at both Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music. Perhaps always being around music and experiencing it as a constant presence, not attributing or associating it to a particular time period or phase of her life, contributes to the timeless quality that I saw in her and the performance Thursday night. She brings classic jazz singing, beloved and little known standards to a place like Jimmy Mak’s and fully inhabits the songs there on the spot. There’s very little nostalgia. She’s performed all over the world, hundreds of times. She is well-rehearsed by now, and still, the songs on Thursday night felt custom-designed for the Portland venue.
The show is part of a Summer Jazz Series, presented by PDX Jazz and the pale light of a sinking evening sun still shone into the club at 7:30 pm when Russell took the stage with guitarist Matt Munisterri, bassist Tal Ronen, and Mark Shane on piano. Every table and bar stool was taken. Along the walls, any space to lean was occupied. Servers squeezed through the crowd, cutting new pathways to their tables each time lifting trays and plates above their heads. It was packed.
I found a spot in the corner and watched on my tippy toes, my view of Russell framed by the bent elbows and nodding heads of the couple in front of me. To keep Russell in sight as I listened to her, I mimicked her movements, lifting and landing on my hips following her lead. She bobbed and rolled her shoulders to the melody, as if the strings of the upright bass pulled on her from above like a puppet. She gestured at the crowd with a facial expression of pure relish that by mid-show was familiar and seemed to say, do you hear these guys?
Her voice spreads so easily over the crowd and throughout the room, blending with the bassist and guitarist’s lyrical swing and acoustics, and the nimble, clean sounds of the piano to create a massage in our ears. Her version of “Bring It Back” ends with her bending towards the crowd, the words, If you bring it back baby, everything’s gonna be alright, leave her and land on us like a lover’s hands.
On piano, Mark Shane sets off “My Man’s An Undertaker” with a cascade of buoyant notes, which led into one another like a falling stack of dominoes. Russell follows with opening lyrics that get a collective laugh from the crowd.
Well you better not knock on my door at night
you better keep your mouth shut good and tight
cuz my mans an undertaker, and he’s got a coffin just your size.
She delivers the rest of the song as if improvising a story, sensitive to the audience’s responses, and her presence on stage is like a blend of your gossipy friend and a stand-up comedian.
I’ve only ever heard Blossom Dearie’s rendition of “I Won’t Dance.” On Thursday night, Russell lifted it in an edgy way, gave it a little more grit and let it become more serious than Dearie’s sweet and airy take. Before diving into the next song, she told the crowd that she now works out everyday. It’s just something you “gotta do everyday these days,” she said, expressing a reluctant acceptance of the reality she joked about, and on cue, she contrived a halfhearted energy to begin the next song, “I’m Lazy That’s All.”
During intermission, Russell spoke with fans in the back room at Jimmy Mak’s, a comparably dingy dark-lit space with black leather couches and coffee tables, a nice respite actually on nights when the dinning room and stage area are at a shoulder-to-shoulder standing room only status. She still sparkled back there out of the stage lighting, and I overheard a few people thank her for coming to Portland. CDs were for sale and the stack was nearly depleted by the time the show was over – the baby boomer scene hovered them up.
During the second set, my night’s companion and I were able to sit at the bar. Overall, it looked like all the dinner orders had been sent into the kitchen, if not already consumed, and the environment was not as frenetic or busy. Servers took their time getting through the thinner crowd and the swinging kitchen door was able to rest. The music coincedentailly reflected this mood too as Russell sang softer tunes, her voice carrying the words of songs like “After The Lights Go Down Low” in long languid notes at the ends of which she let her voice quiver which made me return that facial expression of hers, only mine said, are you hearing her? I shot it across the room to no one and then down at my own lap, shaking my head, happily entranced by the sounds.
During that second set, Jimmy Mak’s really became that spot I’d want to be listening to jazz – dim lights encased in red globes dotting the ceiling, a comfortable bar stool to recline in, enough people to keep the room warm but not too many so that you’re straining your neck to see. Outside, the night calms the city with darkness. It could be Portland or New York out there, or any city street in between. The day is nearly over but you’re not ready for sleep. Catherine Russell and her trio are perfect for those hours and last night, reclining in that bar stool at Jimmy Mak’s, there wasn’t any place else I wanted to be.