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Finding her voice

It’s been a long, strange journey for versatile jazz singer Russell

Catherine Russell has an interesting history as a Grateful Dead fan who has sung with David Bowie, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan. Catherine Russell has an interesting history as a Grateful Dead fan who has sung with David Bowie, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan. (Stefan Falke)
By Andrew Gilbert
Globe Correspondent / April 29, 2011

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With her 1,000-watt smile and playful stage banter, vocalist Catherine Russell may not seem the part, but she is jazz’s prodigal daughter. After a long, circuitous career path including stints with David Bowie, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Levon Helm, and Rosanne Cash, her return to the family fold has given jazz fans many a reason to rejoice.

Mining a treasure trove of double entendre-laden blues, vintage jazz tunes, and Tin Pan Alley gems, the native New Yorker brings a visceral connection to old-time material, delivering the songs as if they were written yesterday, just for her.

“For me a song needs to feel like people are socializing, dancing, and romancing,’’ says Russell, 55, who performs at Scullers on Wednesday, still riding high from the inclusion of her latest album, “Inside This Heart of Mine’’ (World Village), on several 2010 top-10 lists.

Russell’s connection to an earlier era of American music is genuine and direct. She’s the daughter of Luis Russell, the Panamanian-born pianist and bandleader who played a central role in Louis Armstrong’s career in the 1930s and ’40s.

Her mother is the bassist, guitarist, and vocalist Carline Ray, a Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music alum who performed with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Erskine Hawkins, and Mercer Ellington (and is still playing at 86). But as a teenage Deadhead, Russell rejected the music of her parents to pursue a very different musical vision.

“I was going to be a rock ’n’ roll singer,’’ Russell recalls with a self-deprecating chuckle. “I wanted to be Tina and Janis and scream and holler the blues.’’

After lighting out to Northern California as a teenager to join a commune, she studied voice in college and got turned on to musical theater by the jazzy Broadway production “Bubbling Brown Sugar.’’ Throwing herself into acting, she earned a degree from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and spent much of the 1980s scuffling, landing occasional roles off-Broadway, in B movies like the cult classic “Basket Case,’’ and musicals, most visibly “Big River,’’ the Broadway production based on “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’’

Russell was also paying dues as a versatile vocalist, a process that accelerated when her mother dropped her name to jazz and blues singer Carrie Smith, who hired her for a European tour that provided an education about the rigors of the road. She got her Big Apple break in 1987 at the comedy club Catch a Rising Star, a one-night tryout that turned into a four-year, six-nights-a-week gig singing rock and funk.

Her disparate resume earned her a faculty spot at Berklee in 1999, teaching students how to research, develop, and present material. “It was a fantastic job, and I’m still in touch with many students,’’ Russell says. “I’d still be there but I left to go on the road with David Bowie, which led to a full freelance, backing-vocal career.’’

Strangely enough, the journey back to her musical birthright started with the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, which left her without a musical homebase. In search of a community, she accompanied her mother to the West Village club Sweet Basil for the Sunday brunch show where she was subbing with nonagenarian trumpet great Doc Cheatham. The club became her new sanctuary, and after several months she started sitting in regularly with the band, singing songs she had heard while growing up.

Cheatham’s rhythm section with bassist Earl May and drummer Eddie Locke became her first band, though over the years she’s honed a rootsy string band sound with Matt Munisteri on guitar and banjo, pianist Mark Shane, and bassist Lee Hudson.

Her solo career has gained enough momentum since the release of her acclaimed 2006 debut, “Cat’’ (World Village), that she’s given up most of her other gigs, though she still performs with Steely Dan. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen have utilized several generations of jazz masters in Steely Dan, from Phil Woods to Chris Potter, and they clearly value that Russell is rooted in her parents’ rich musical lineage.

“You can hear that history and soul in every note she sings,’’ Fagen wrote in an e-mail. “Catherine’s style is just Catherine: traditional without sentimentality, original without pretense. She’s a natural, and we’re lucky to have her in our band.’’

For Russell, the thrill isn’t so much coming full circle as being able to channel her vast, unruly body of experience into her music, which means that she’s finally found herself rather than chasing Tina Turner or Chaka Khan.

“It does seem like my whole life is culminating now,’’ Russell says. “Everything I’ve been through I’m able to express now. The study of acting and early jazz has saved me as a performer. I’m so thankful I’m still young enough to experience myself fully through it. Alberta Hunter was performing in her 80s. I want to do that.’’

Andrew Gilbert can be reached at jazzscribe@aol.com.

CATHERINE RUSSELL

At: Scullers, Wednesday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $22. 617-562-4111, www.ticketweb.com.