For Grammy Award-nominated jazz singer Catherine Russell, juxtaposing the music of Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday in her upcoming Strathmore concert was a given, as was performing with jazz guitarist and bandleader and vocalist John Pizzarelli.
It is to Pizzarelli who Russell attributes the idea of blending those world-class vocalists in one program.
“It's a natural fit since Sinatra was a great admirer of Billie Holiday and her unique singing style,” said Russell. “Both singers came up working as vocalists during the Swing Era, with big bands, before leading their own groups.”
Both were also great interpreters of a lyric, who knew how to swing, she added.
Neither Russell nor Pizzarelli is a stranger to impressive collaborations -- Russell toured with David Bowie before going solo, and Pizzarelli worked with performers as diverse as the Boston Pops Orchestra and Paul McCartney.
The 61-year-old Russell also comes from a musical background. Her father, Luis, was Louis Armstrong’s longtime music director. Her mother was jazz musician Carline Ray.
“When one has high-achieving parents, it can be intimidating,” she said. “I had a musical ear from a very early age, and I wanted to play all the instruments in the orchestra. I started with the violin, then went on to tuba, and eventually drums and percussion in school bands. I tried trumpet and saxophone but couldn't get the hang...I also grew up singing in school choruses as an alto, singing standard classical repertoire.”
Still, she never considered being a lead singer until after college, and even then, kept day jobs for years, until able to make a full-time living as a vocalist.
It also took a while for her and Pizzarelli to be on stage together.
“We’ve known each other for years, but just started performing together recently,” Russell said. “I've admired his work for many years, and he's played my music on his radio show. The idea to put us together came from our management teams, and I'm glad it did.”
Along with his wife, Jessica Molaskey, Pizzarelli co-hosts the nationally syndicated Radio Deluxe every week.
“I think of New Years as a time to get back to things that are more classic – things that when judged over time emerge as the highest standard,” said Joi Brown, Strathmore’s Vice President of Programming. “The music of Sinatra and Holiday are a classic by any standard, and an ideal reminder that some of what we need the most has been right there all along.”
The format of the show calls for Pizzarelli to do his segment first with several songs as well as stories.
“John is funny, and his stories are so wonderful,” Russell said.
Pizzarelli then brings Russell later in the show, at which time they perform music together. Russell will also introduce her own songs and describe how they have resonated with her over many years.
Are there songs that particularly impacted her?
“John and I have picked material that inspires us, so I love all the songs I sing in the show,” Russell said. “I will say, though, that ‘Ghost of Yesterday, by Irene Wilson, is one of my favorites. I heard this song when I was a teenager, and it just got into my bones immediately. It's a darker song about love and loss, and a masterful piece of writing in my opinion.”
Irene Wilson wrote many songs that Billie Holiday recorded, around the time that Wilson broke up with her husband. It was Teddy Wilson, a pianist, with whom Holiday made some of her earliest recordings in the 1930s.
The concert begins at 8 p.m. on January 5 at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane,
North Bethesda. For information, visit: www.strathmore.org.