Although there’s really no definitive definition of just what jazz is, it’s generally considered a bit more cerebral than typical pop music. Yet many jazz standards – the songs that form the bedrock upon which countless improvisers and interpreters add their personal touch – began life as simple pop ditties.
Catherine Russell is undeniably a jazz singer, yet she brings a playful, irreverent approach to the music that keeps the emphasis firmly on fun. She’s backed by a superb aggregation that begins with a jazz quartet (Matt Munisteri on guitar and banjo(!), pianist Mark Shane, with bassist Lee Hudson and drummer Mark McLean) that expands to include horns, violin, clarinet, and accordion as required. The presence of Munisteri’s banjo is telling – there’s a period sound to Strictly Romancin’ that recalls an earlier, and arguably more innocent, era.
Take opener “Under The Spell Of The Blues” – with an almost jaunty arrangement accented with exquisitely layered brass, it’s a breezy take on the blues meant more for entertainment than cathartic release. Similarly, “I’m In The Mood For Love,” with its gauzy, dreamy arrangement featuring acoustic guitar and atmospheric accordion, harkens back to simpler times when a pleasant melody, rather than a big beat or a catchy groove, meant everything.
And so it goes, with material ranging from the bouncy “Wake Up And Live” to the sultry “Romance In The Dark,” here delivered in a manner that’s more demure than naughty. (One suspects the romance doesn’t go much further than holding hands, with a chaste kiss the ultimate prize). There’s Duke Ellington’s somewhat goofy “I’m Checkin’ Out, Goom’Bye,” featuring hilarious call-and-response work between Russell and John Aldred’s growling trombone, and an equally lighthearted “Satchel Mouth Baby.” “Everything’s Been Done Before,” with both accordion and violin, is pure parlor jazz, while the disc’s bluesiest track, the plaintive “Don’t Leave Me,” is more elegant than aggressive. “He’s All I Need” lets Russell show her gospel roots (with vocal help from guest Carline Ray), while “Everybody Loves My Baby” has an almost ragtime feel to it, emphasized by Munisteri’s gypsy-jazz guitar and Dan Block’s airy clarinet.
Russell’s voice is perfect for the material and her overall approach – strong and clear, smooth rather than gritty, and possessed of a coyness that’s suggestive without resorting to lasciviousness. She’s a little too polished for deep blues – there’s no danger or despair here – but she swings with consummate and confident ease, as evidenced on rhetorical closer “Whatcha Gonna Do When There Ain’t No Swing.”
The music itself might be a bit old-fashioned, but there’s nothing ‘old school’ about production. Strictly Romancin’ has a remarkable clarity and presence, with crystal clear sound and genuinely exceptional definition – music aside, it’s quite simply a pleasure to listen to.
Thankfully, the music and performances all around are just as lovingly crafted, and Russell manages to inject a great deal of sunny personality into proceedings.
More pleasant diversion than artistic statement, Strictly Romancin’ is nevertheless a lively and engaging delight from beginning to end.