On “Alone Together”, the title cut from Catherine Russell’s new release, available Mar 1, the singer/bandleader sticks close to the melody, in tight formation with her band—a rhythm section and a panoply of horns. Her vocal tone is resonant and buttery, and her delivery hits the sweet spot between passion and detachment. Perfect.

This tune exemplifies Russell’s talent for rendering just about any jazz number, whether a known standard (“How Deep Is The Ocean”) or an obscure novelty song (“He Maybe Be Your Dog But He’s Wearing My Collar”), into a relatable listen for most modern audiences—a talent that has earned her TV and film work high acclaim (a Grammy for “Boardwalk Empire”) and has made her a go-to backing singer for legions of pop acts (Madonna, David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan among them).

Both of the aforementioned tracks are on the new album, her seventh as a leader and her first for Dot Time Records. She culls her material for this album from swing-era jazz, focusing on songs that engage her both harmonically and textually—but the allure of Russell’s renditions of these tunes lies in her assured way with a groove and her understated ornamentation pointing the listener in just the right direction. Again, perfect.

In 1992 acclaimed vocalist Betty Carter sang in a concert at the then-recently inaugurated Jazz at Lincoln Center, dubbed “The Music Never Stops.” For the concert she used three trios, a large horn ensemble, and a string section, moving masterfully among these different vocal settings and through an array of ever-shifting feels—swing, big band, bebop. Carter’s performance that evening sparkles with alacrity and precision, from her whip-fast lyrics on “Tight” to the extended interplay of her medley, “Why Him?/Where or When/What’s New?”; in this one performance Carter summarizes what makes jazz singers unique among musicians—the ability to bring words to life in the crucible of the jazz band. And she filled her bands that night with the most electric musicians around, among them pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Geri Allen, drummers Kenny Washington and Greg Hutchinson, and trombonist Robin Eubanks. Blue Engine Records, the JALC-sponsored label, will release a recording of that event and by that name on Mar 29, 27 years to the day after the concert. This historically significant album—comprising all never-before released performances—represents Carter’s first posthumous recording since her death in 1998 at age 69.

When Italian singer/arranger Diana Torti first heard avant gardist Jeanne Lee sing she had an epiphany: Singers could explore the uncharted terrain of free material, too. Torti, an imaginative improviser who responds easily to musical impulse in the moment, just released her sixth album, On A Cloud (SLAM), featuring classical guitarist Sabino de Bari accompanying Torti on standards (“Honeysuckle Rose”) and originals inspired by Lee’s work (“Fireflies”). Torti’s fresh sound—open and lilting—pays a notable homage to Lee’s vocal tradition on what would have been the singer and poet’s 80th birthday. In explaining her fascination with Lee, Torti writes, “We should revisit her story, hoping to see the reissue of some of the albums where she has collaborated—the beauty of sharing will be enriched with further treasures” (Alias). Torti’s new release goes a long way toward that enrichment.

Singer/composer Kristen Lee Sergeant’s debut album Inside Out (Whaling City Sound) garnered international attention for her inventive arrangements, strong storytelling, and rich vocal sound. Her follow-up to that success, Smolder (CD Baby), promises to push her rise even further. The 10 tracks—mostly standards with some 1980s pop and one original—crackle with warmth and feeling. Sergeant launches the new record at Birdland on Mar 26, backed by a high-powered band that includes pianist Helen Sung, bassist Cameron Brown, and saxophonist Ted Nash.

Judy Collins, a singer-songwriter whose crystalline voice crosses over readily among folk, standards, cabaret, and pop, will accept the Bob Harrington Lifetime Achievement Award at the Annual Bistro Awards Gala on Mar 11. This award celebrates Collins’ six decades of contributions to the music industry and represents the Bistro Awards highest honor.

Gig notes: Tierney Sutton surprises fans with a newly scheduled show at the fabled Carlyle Hotel Mar 19-23; Theo Bleckmann sings three times this month—at St. Peter’s Church Mar 10 and 17, and at Jazz Gallery Mar 26; and Alexis Cole continues her residency at Smoke Sundays for all of March.

Photo: Stefan Falke.

(Reprinted from the March 2019 issue of New York City Jazz Record.)