Song & Stage

Catherine Russell Graces the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center Stage

She joins the John Pizzarelli Trio to perform 'Billie and Blue Eyes.'

Billie and Blue Eyes. That’s the title of jazz guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli and jazz vocalist Catherine Russell’s new show coming to the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center (WHBPAC) on Sunday, July 15 at 8 p.m. The concert will feature the John Pizzarelli Trio, joined by Russell, performing fresh renditions of some of the best-loved songs of all time.

About the title: Billie refers to Billie Holiday, and Blue Eyes is, of course, Frank Sinatra. It’s hard to imagine a better way to frame a deep dive into the Great American Songbook. And it’s hard to imagine a better pair to make that dive than Pizzarelli and Russell. Pizzarelli is a Grammy-nominated, world-renowned revitalizer of this repertoire, and Grammy-winner Russell has made a tremendous string of recordings featuring her pure voice on some of these timeless songs.

“I grew up listening to all the great singers,” says Russell. “My favorite show was Make Believe Ballroom”—the long-running WNEW-AM radio show that featured the likes of Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald singing classic songs. “I was also a TV variety show junkie—that was my context for this music.”

Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra present a fairly sharp contrast in their approaches to singing standards, observes Russell. Put simply, Sinatra tended not to stray too far from the melodies as they were written, whereas Holiday had a more improvisatory bent. “She was very free with a melody,” Russell notes. “She did her own thing—but when you really listen to what Billie was doing in the early and middle years you hear the technique. Her ears were very good.” For Billie and Blue Eyes, Russell honors both approaches: She tends to present a melody straight at first, then she improvises on the repeat.

Russell credits Pizzarelli with changing her own technique. “John has expanded my sense of improvising,” she says. “He’s such a great artist, so much fun to work with.” Pizzarelli combines stunning virtuosity on the guitar with a vocal dexterity, which, when put together, allow him to solo with his voice and guitar simultaneously—it’s astonishing to watch. “I don’t know how he’s doing that,” says Russell. “He just eats, thinks and breathes music.”

Pizzarelli, the son of legendary jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, has in fact been steeped in the jazz world from infancy—and he has the stories to go with it. “John does the first part of the show with the trio, and tells these great stories,” says Russell. “He’s a tremendous raconteur.” Russell joins the band for the second half of the evening.

Russell has her own jazz pedigree—her father, Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong’s long-time musical director and her mother, Carline Ray, was a conservatory-trained musician who performed with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-female big band. But Russell really got her start as a performer as a backup vocalist for headlining performers.

In that capacity, she has sung background for some of the biggest names in popular music. She toured with David Bowie, Steely Dan, Lady Gaga and Roseanne Cash—just to name a few. It’s a kind of work she loves and continues to do.

“The movie 20 Feet From Stardom makes it seem like background singers would all rather be headliners, but that’s not true,” Russell says. “I love harmonizing, and it’s great to be able to support a great artist as a part of a great section.”

She enjoys the challenge of mastering the at-times tricky parts bands like Steely Dan come up with for their backup singers.

Russell notes that the theme of Billie and Blue Eyes gave her and Pizzarelli a lot of potential songs to choose from, but that the audience at WBHPAC can expect an evening of mostly familiar, time-tested tunes to tap their feet to. “There are some more obscure tunes, but mainly we picked some of the more popular ones.”

Who knows: There may even be a sing-along in the mix. It may be your turn to be a backup singer!

Billie and Blue Eyes will be heard at WHBPAC on Sunday, July 15 at 8 p.m. Tickets are now sold out. 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach. 631-288-1500, whbpac.org

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