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Catherine Russell: The 'Fresh Air' In-Studio Concert

The standards singer sang tracks from her solo album, Strictly Romancin', during this 2012 interview and performance. Russell's latest album is called Alone Together.


Other segments from the episode on April 24, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 24, 2020: Obituary for Brian Dennehy; Obituary for Lee Konitz; Interview with Catherine Russell and Matt Munisteri.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today, as a treat while all of us are coping with the pandemic, we have a performance by one of the best jazz and blues singers around - Catherine Russell. A lot of the material she does is jazz, blues and pop dating back to the 1930s and '40s. Her father, Luis Russell, was a pianist, composer and arranger and was Louis Armstrong's music director in the mid-'40s. Her mother, Carline Ray, performed with the all-women's band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Catherine Russell's latest album is titled "Alone Together."

Terry invited her to our studio in 2012, when her album "Strictly Romancin'" was released. She was accompanied by guitarist Matt Munisteri.


CATHERINE RUSSELL: (Singing) Wake up and live. Don't mind the rainy patter, and you will find it's mind over matter. Dark clouds will break up if you just wake up and live. Yeah, wake up and live. Show the stuff you're made of. Just follow through. What are you afraid of? You'll try it, won't you? Why don't you wake up and live? Come out of your shell. Hey, fella, find your place in the sun. Come out of your shell. Say, fella, just be a go-getting son of a gun. Wake up and live, if lady luck is yawning. Up on your toes, a better day is dawning. Don't let up, get up and give. Just give yourself a shake-up just to wake up and live. Come out of your shell. Hey, fella, find your place in the sun. Come out of your shell. Say, fella, just be a go-getting son of a gun. Yeah, wake up and live if lady luck is yawning. Up on your toes, a better day is dawning. Don't let up, get up and give. Just give yourself a shake-up just to wake up and live.

TERRY GROSS: Yeah, that was great. Thank you both so much.


GROSS: That's Catherine Russell singing with Matt Munisteri featured on guitar. Now, you're here singing live for us, which is thrilling. But there's an album - there's a song from the new album I actually want to play from the album because your mother is featured on it, singing a duet with you on a Rosa (ph) Tharpe gospel song.

RUSSELL: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Sister Marine Knight recorded a lot together back in the 1940s. And she swung. You know, that's what also grabbed me about her music.

GROSS: So let's hear the track from the album in which you sing a duet with your mother, and this is "He's All I Need." And this is my guest, Catherine Russell, with her mother Carline Ray, who used to perform most famously in The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-women's band, during World War II. And this is from Catherine's new album, which is called "Strictly Romancin'."


CATHERINE RUSSELL AND CARLINE RAY: (Singing) If I was hungry without bread to eat. Well, If I was naked with no shoes on my feet. Well, if I was wondering, oh, Lord, where would I be? The Lord, he is my shepherd, - yeah, yeah - and that's all I'll ever need. And now the Lord is my shepherd - he is my shepherd - the Lord is my shepherd. And that's all I need to know. Oh now the Lord is my shepherd...

GROSS: That's Catherine Russell duetting with her mother Carline Ray from Catherine's new album "Strictly Romanin'." I really like that so much. At a time when there were few women instrumentalists in jazz, your mother was playing guitar with The International Sweethearts of Rhythm...


GROSS: ...In the 1940s, during World War II. And then your father dies when you're 7.


GROSS: So your mother's on her own...

RUSSELL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...Raising you.


GROSS: So you must have gotten the impression from her that women can definitely be strong and do things that are unconventional for women.

RUSSELL: Yes. You know, even when my dad was alive, I mean, she was always very independent. She left home to go on the road, and women just didn't really do that. You know, so my grandfather - she used to tell me the story. You know, my grandfather would say, you'll be back, you know, when you've...

GROSS: (Laughter).

RUSSELL: You'll be back, you know. And she left, and she didn't come back, really, you know. She just left and started working right after she graduated from Juilliard School of Music. You know, she wanted to play, and she was inspired by all the jazz on 52nd Street and hearing, you know, Billie Holiday live, and Art Tatum accompanied her one night. And so she was really determined and very independent and very focused.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're doing something special today. We have Catherine Russell performing some songs for us in our studio, accompanied by guitarist Matt Munisteri.

So both your parents were jazz musicians.


GROSS: But you grew up hearing all kinds of things growing up in the '50s and '60s. I'm going to ask you to sing a song that meant a lot to you when you were coming of age musically and when you were really impressionable and learning new things.

RUSSELL: All right. Well, my first 45 that I bought was a Supremes 45. I think it cost me about 40 cents back in 1964, 1965 - something like that. Then with all the girl groups, I loved a song called "Nowhere To Run" by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Then later on, I realized that The Isley Brothers also recorded it, and I loved their version of it. So that's where I take this version from.

GROSS: Fantastic. And this is my guest Catherine Russell singing with guitarist Matt Munisteri.


RUSSELL: (Singing) Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. I got nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. It's not love I'm running from; it's just the heartache I know will come 'cause I know you're no good for me. But you've become a part of me. Everywhere I go, every face I see, every step I take, you take with me, baby. Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. Oh, got nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. I know you're no good for me now, but free of you I'll never be, yeah. Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. Oh, yeah, nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. Nowhere to hide.

GROSS: That was great. And what an achievement to sing that solo without a backup group, you know?


GROSS: It's funny 'cause that's the kind of song that's usually so dependent on, like, the backup singers. You used to be a backup singer. And here you are doing it solo.


RUSSELL: I don't know. I just love that song. I love the fact that it's actually blues, you know. It's a sad song, but it's - you know, we used to dance to that song when I was a kid.

DAVIES: We're listening back to a concert recorded in 2012 with jazz and blues singer Catherine Russell and guitarist Matt Munisteri. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our concert with Catherine Russell and guitarist Matt Munisteri recorded in 2012, after her album "Strictly Romancin'" was released.


GROSS: I'd love for you to do another song. And this is a song by Fats Waller that's the title track of one of your earlier albums called "Inside This Heart Of Mine." You know, you always associate Fats Waller with these, like, up-tempo kind of jokey songs, and this is a really, like, heartbreaking song. And it's not what you'd expect. It's a beautiful song. Tell us why you chose it.

RUSSELL: That's why I chose it because another instance of me, you know, cleaning up the kitchen after a great meal, and I said, let me put Fats Waller on, you know. And I was kind of, you know, dancing around the kitchen, and then it just struck me. It's such a beautiful song, and the lyric just kind of caught me. And I thought, OK, I have to learn this; I have to sing it.

GROSS: Well, you're not kidding around when you sing it.

RUSSELL: Thank you.


GROSS: So this is my guest Catherine Russell with Matt Munisteri on guitar, and they're performing in our studio. And she has a new album which is called "Strictly Romancin'."


RUSSELL: (Singing) Outside it's sunny. But in this heart of mine, the world is gloomy. The sun refused to shine. I've done the best that I could do, all for you. Now we're through. Sunshine brings danger inside this heart of mine. Blue skies taunt me. Memories haunt me. You don't want me. Let me be alone and have my cry. Outside it's sunny, but that's a real bad sign. Love is a stranger inside this heart of mine. Blue skies taunt me. Memories haunt me. You don't want me. Let me be alone and have my cry. Outside it's sunny, but that's a real bad sign. Love is a stranger inside this heart of mine - inside this heart of mine.

GROSS: Fabulous. Thank you so much. I love the way you do that song.

With me in our studio is singer Catherine Russell and guitarist Matt Munisteri. They're performing some songs for us. She has a new album which is called "Strictly Romancin'." He's the featured guitarist and music director on the album.

So I hate to say it, but our - I think our time is up. And before you leave, I'd love for you to sing another song for us.


GROSS: And I have one to recommend, and it's called "Everything's Been Done Before." It's one of the songs on the new album, which is called "Strictly Romancin'." And again, tell us why you chose this one.

RUSSELL: I was once again listening to a compilation and this time it was a Louis Armstrong compilation, and Decca had just put this compilation out.

GROSS: Was your father on these records?

RUSSELL: Yes. And this is during a period when my dad was musical director and one of the arrangers for Louis Armstrong's orchestra - it was actually my dad's orchestra during the years of 1935 to 1943. This collection goes up to 1946, but many of the tunes are, you know, my dad's arrangements. And so when I listen to this music, it's like I'm just home, you know. It's - so when I hear Louis Armstrong sing, everything he sings - he's so inspiring to me because he had a hard life. And everything he sings, his life is in every lyric. You believe everything he sings, you know? And so when I heard this song, I thought anyone else singing that, it would kind of be corny-sounding to people, maybe. I don't know. But when he sings it, it's so real that it just drew me in. And I thought, what a simple idea. What a old-fashioned, romantic idea.

GROSS: So was your father music director when Armstrong sang things like "Got A Brand New Suit" or...

RUSSELL: Yeah. Yes.

GROSS: No, really?

RUSSELL: Yes. Yes. Yes.

GROSS: Or "On A Coconut Island?"

RUSSELL: Yeah. That's on those...

GROSS: No - oh, I love that stuff.

RUSSELL: All of those things are on that - yeah, during those years...

GROSS: Oh, no.

RUSSELL: ...Yeah, in the '30s.

GROSS: So that was actually your father's band?

RUSSELL: Yeah. That was his orchestra.

GROSS: Catherine Russell, it has been, really, very special to have you here performing today. Thank you so very much.

RUSSELL: Well, thank, you. You have no idea. It's been so special for me. And I just want to say, dreams can come true. So...


GROSS: And Matt Munisteri, thank you so much for being here today.

MATT MUNISTERI: Thank you, thank you.

GROSS: So we're going to hear one more song. And this is, again, a song from Catherine Russell's new album, "Strictly Romancin'." But she's performing in our studio with Matt Munisteri on guitar. And thank you both again.


RUSSELL: (Singing) Everything's been done before. To share a kiss, a moment's bliss, and hear you whisper you love me - sweetheart, it's thrills as old as the hills. But it's new to me. Oh, everything's been done before. The birds that sing the song of spring always singing above me - yet, with you, their singing is something that's new to me. Life is strange. We hate to change from what is tried and true. Although, I know I'm only doing what the others do. Yet, it all seems new. Oh, everything's been done before. To fall in love with stars above began with Adam and Eve. But when I'm with you, I just want to do what's been done before. Oh, life is strange. We hate to change from what is tried and true. Although, I know I'm only doing what the others do. Yet, it all seems news. Everything's been done before. To fall in love with stars above began with Adam and Eve. But when I'm with you, I just want to do what's been before.

DAVIES: Our concert with Catherine Russell and Matt Munisteri on guitar was recorded in 2012. Her latest album is titled "Alone Together." Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews two crime dramas that begin streaming this week. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. There's no shortage of old and new movies to watch while many of us are staying at home. Our film critic, Justin Chang, reviews two new, very different crime dramas that begin streaming this week, "Bad Education" and "True History Of The Kelly Gang," both of which he first saw at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. Here's Justin.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: I see a lot of movies every year at film festivals, which, like all public gatherings, have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Some, like South by Southwest, have been cancelled while others, like Cannes, have been postponed until further notice. Many in the industry are cautiously optimistic that Toronto, one of the biggest festivals in the world, might happen in September. I'm hopeful, but also wary about the prospect. As eager as I am to go to festivals again, it's hard, at this point, to imagine any major event proceeding as normal.

As it happens, the two titles I'm recommending this week, "Bad Education" and "True History Of The Kelly Gang," are both films that I caught at Toronto last fall. "Bad Education," which premieres this Saturday on HBO, is a smart and wickedly funny drama about a scandal that rocked Long Island in 2004 when it came to light that millions of dollars have been embezzled from the wealthy school district of Roslyn Heights. Like all good scam movies, this one is full of outrageous twists and satisfying comeuppances. It's also about white-collar crooks, who are always painfully human even at their most dastardly and dunderheaded. Hugh Jackman stars as Dr. Frank Tassone, Roslyn's beloved school superintendent. And Allison Janney plays his deputy, Pamela Gluckin. Their district is one of the top-ranked in the nation. Test scores are up. And Roslyn's students are flooding Ivy League schools, driving up property values.

Frank and Pam make quite a team and so did Jackman and Janney, who give their best performances in some time. Working from Mike Makowsky's sharp script, they turn day-to-day administrative chatter into scintillating repartee. Frank, in particular, makes a charming and genuinely complicated antihero. You can tell how image-obsessed he is from his impeccable suits and his strict low-carb diet.

But there are early signs that his perfectly manicured life isn't all it's cracked up to be. But Frank is also a gifted teacher and administrator. And he takes a genuine interest in his students. We see this when a student journalist named Rachel interviews him for an article on a very expensive real estate project that the district is considering.


GERALDINE VISWANATHAN: (As Rachel) OK. So they just - they want me to write an article about the skywalk proposal in the new budget. And I just need a pull quote from administration.

HUGH JACKMAN: (As Frank) Yeah. Oh, OK. Soundbite. Nice. We've been asking high schoolers how we can make their day easier. So we came up with this idea of the skywalk, a bridge to link the school from end to end. And it's a huge undertaking for us. And we can't wait to break ground once the plans are approved next May.

VISWANATHAN: (As Rachel) Great. That's all I need. Thank you so much.

JACKMAN: (As Frank) Well, that's it? No follow-ups?

VISWANATHAN: (As Rachel) No, it's just a puff piece. They save the real stories for seniors.

JACKMAN: (As Frank) Rachel, it's only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece.

CHANG: Frank's advice will come back to bite him when Rachel, played by the terrific Geraldine Viswanathan, begins digging into the district's financial records and finds some curious discrepancies. Even if the Roslyn scandal doesn't ring a bell, you can probably guess where this muckraking story is headed. But the director, Cory Finley, navigates the material with ease. And his actors never stop surprising you. And Jackman, with his seductive charm and megawatt grin, reminds you that he was born to razzle-dazzle an audience. Between this and the two-faced carnival barker he played in "The Greatest Showman," he's truly a con man for all seasons.

A much more notorious crook is at the center of "True History Of The Kelly Gang," an IFC Films release that you can watch on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and other platforms. This brutal and gripping drama, adapted from Peter Carey's Booker Prize-winning novel, is a revisionist riff on the life and crimes of Ned Kelly, the 19th century Australian outlaw whose bloody exploits have been memorialized in books, plays, songs and two earlier films starring Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger. Here, the role falls to the excellent George MacKay from "1917." Though, he is initially played by a striking young newcomer named Orlando Schwerdt.

We see Ned's hard upbringing, where his poor, Irish-born parents run afoul of the law, leading to his father's untimely death. Ned is even more profoundly scarred by his prostitute mother, played by a ferocious Essie Davis, who looks at the boy with a weird mix of pride, contempt and near-Oedipal lust. The superb cast also includes Russell Crowe as Harry Power, a bandit who shows Ned the ropes. And Nicholas Hoult is memorable as the louche and sadistic Constable Fitzpatrick, who becomes Ned's chief nemesis when he and his gang begin their thieving, murdering rampage.

While the dialogue is steeped in gnarled, period vernacular, the movie's sensibility is thoroughly modern. It gazes at Kelly through a punk rock prism. In the most outre touch, Ned and his gang commit their crimes wearing women's dresses on the logic that nothing will seem crazier or scarier to their enemies.

Despite its title, "True History Of The Kelly Gang" doesn't claim any basis in reality. And yet, its wild, untamed reading of the Kelly legend gets at something that feels remarkably true. The director, Justin Kurzel, achieves the same visual intensity he brought to his "Macbeth" - all fire-lit interiors, bizarre strobe effects and snowy, blood-spattered landscapes. It deserves the grandeur of the big screen. But don't deny yourself the thrill of seeing it any way you can.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic at The LA Times. Monday on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Mindy Kaling. She has a new Netflix series called "Never Have I Ever" that draws on her experiences when she was in high school. It was described in Vanity Fair as breezy and delightful, practically built for quarantine marathon watching. Kaling first became known for her role on "The Office" as Kelly Kapoor. I hope you'll join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


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