Whether singing backup for Bowie or solo, music comes naturally for Catherine Russell

Catherine Russell will perform two sets Dec. 6 at the Durham Fruit and Produce Company in Durham as part of Duke Performances.Sandrine Lee

David Bowie sat on a train during his 2002 tour in support of his “Heathen” album, clutching a doctor’s bag and sporting a vintage Armani suit while the cameras went crazy.

“Don’t worry, it’s not always like this,” Bowie explained to Catherine Russell after the dramatic photo shoot.

“He looked like Elliott Ness from ‘The Untouchables,’” Russell recalls while calling from her New York apartment. ”David didn’t have to tell me that the shoot was not a day in his average life, but he did.”

Russell, 62, who was Bowie’s backup vocalist during the early century tours, has been familiar with the world of music. Her mother and father were musicians. Her father, the late Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong’s bandleader. Her vocalist mother, the late Carline Ray, was part of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

“I knew some things while growing up in a house in which music was always playing,” Russell says. “Even though my father died when I was young, I knew about what he did, and my mother was always very supportive. Through her I learned about the business.”

The jazz singer started out a little later than her peers.

“Even with all of the knowledge I had, I still had to figure out how to make a living at music.”

Russell will perform two sets Dec. 6 as part of Duke Performances’ In the Jazz Tradition Festival, which highlights women jazz singers. The concert series, from Dec. 3 to 10, also features Nnenna Freelon, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Nellie McKay, Jazzmeia Horn, Rene Marie, Kate McGarry, Charles Lloyd and Lucinda Williams and the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble.

Russell got her start as a backup vocalist and enjoyed a great deal of success. The entertainer recorded and toured with Paul Simon, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.

“Singing backup was always very easy for me since I love singing harmony,” Russell says. “I never tried to be a star. I just want to sing.”

When Bowie ended his career as a touring musician, Russell focused on her solo act and began recording albums filled with jazz standards.

“It’s what comes natural to me,” Russell says. “I love all kinds of music and I always have, but when it comes to singing, I’m a jazz person.”

The Grammy nominee has released four albums, including her latest, “Harlem On My Mind,” since parting with Bowie.

“I get to express myself as a solo artist,” Russell says. “I enjoy it.”

“Harlem on My Mind” is comprised of a disparate collection of jazz classics, ranging from the near century-old “You’ve Got the Right Key but the Wrong Keyhole” to the Irving Berlin standard title track.

“The songs are so different on my albums because I’m always hunting and foraging for new material,” Russell says. “I love songs from the ‘20s to the ‘50s. Songs aren’t written like that anymore. They especially don’t write the way they did during the pre-swing 1930s era. I love that double-entendre blues. Back in the ‘30s, they censored writers. I love going back to the ‘20s era to sing those songs.”

Russell’s parents had a myriad of albums, which are now in storage, along with endless family music memorabilia.

“I love the date books my mother kept,” Russell says. “There’s about 20 years worth of notes and you can see when and where her sessions were. My dad kept his recording contracts, so I can see where he and his orchestra played during the 1940s. I love all of that because it’s my parents’ life and it’s about music.”

If Russell had to pick a favorite period of her life, it was working with Bowie.

“David was a great leader of a band,” Russell says. “David regarded us as a band and let each of us shine. He had such respect for musicians and he was also very nice and human. I have so many great memories performing with him and being with him when paparazzi was chasing him. But the greatest thing is that his songs are timeless and will live on forever, just like the jazz songs I sing.”

Catherine Russell, part of Duke Performances’ In the Jazz Tradition festival

When: 7 and 9 p.m. Dec. 6

Where: Durham Fruit and Produce Company, 305 S. Dillard St., Durham

Tickets: $25

Info: 919-684-4444 or dukeperformances.duke.edu

In the Jazz Tradition: The concert series, from Dec. 3 to Dec. 10, also features Nnenna Freelon, Cecile McLorin Salvant, Nellie McKay, Jazzmeia Horn, Rene Marie, Kate McGarry, Charles Lloyd and Lucinda Williams and the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble.

Horn, Russell, Freelon and McGarry will take part in a moderated discussion Dec. 7 at noon at The Pinhook, 117 W. Main St., Durham. Admission is free. it will be moderated by Duke professor and Emmy-nominated producer Natalie Bullock Brown. A light lunch will be provided by Pie Pushers pizza.


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