June 24, 2024

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Woody Russell blurs the lines between Jazz, R&B and Folk: Video

30.09. – Happy Birthday !!! Critically acclaimed, award winning, Contemporary Jazz vocalist, guitarist and composer, Woody Russell, blurs the lines between Jazz, R&B and Folk. It’s a sophisticated musical niche that a handful of artists have occupied where Jazz and Singer-Songwriter crossover (think Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Gregory Porter, Lizz Wright, Al Jarreau, etc.). One could certainly reference the origins of the classic American Songbook for such composers, but Russell’s take is decidedly more contemporary.

Growing up in a small college town in Montana, Woody Russell was surrounded by the natural beauty of Big Sky country. What he was not surrounded by was a culture of the arts, of jazz, and certainly not a live music scene of any sort. Nonetheless, music was a deeply fundamental part of his childhood experience by way of a modest but diverse collection of albums, FM radio and a family’s appreciation for music.

“I was, I still am, fascinated by music and musicians,” states Woody. “It was present in every corner of my life, both the internal, as well as, the beautiful outdoor world that I grew up exploring.  It held such a grip on my imagination. If I wasn’t actively listening to something, I was singing, finding my way around the guitar or creating recordings on my desktop cassette recorder.  I cherished that little machine.”

Decades later, Russell has released a body of recorded work that spans from the early acoustic Folk infused songwriter fare of his first album, …As Simple As That (1996) to the highly praised Blues/Soul release of Up Against It (2010) and the stunning instrumental/orchestral collection, Big Sky (2012). The following year he offered the Pop-Jazz shades of Delicious Days (2013). Russell’s most recent full length album, Carry It Up (2016), further explores his amalgam of Jazz-meets-R&B and Soul, offering an uplifting, thought provoking listen replete with intimate narratives. It’s occasionally romantic, often reflective, even sentimental, but balanced by his examination of a broader social consciousness on several tracks. The album focuses on themes of love, compassion, tolerance, respect and the quest for all of the aforementioned. An acoustic cover – Russell’s first – of Marvin Gaye’s chestnut, “What’s Going On”, features the tenor sax of Chi-town transplant, Dez Desormeaux, and is right at home amid the rest of this original work. The end result with Carry It Up is a lush recording that is positively brimming with superb song-craft created by a master tunesmith leading a world class band. Excellent soloists and ensemble interplay are on display throughout. But, what elevates the game, yet again, is Russell’s very fine delivery as a vocalist: equal parts crooner and soul-shouter. There can be no doubt that he possesses a mastery of his vocal instrument which conveys an emotional sincerity with each phrase, each lyrical turn. He navigates the sound of his words with a rhythmic precision and melodic expression akin to jazz improvisation. Comparisons to Al Jarreau, Kurt Elling and flourishes of Van Morrison abound. Then there’s his guitar playing, which Blues Revue likened to “the fearlessness of Jeff Beck”.

Woody Russell is the recipient of the 2013 Bugle Boy Foundation’s Talent Trust Award following Grammy nominee John Fullbright (2012). He is an officially recognized artist of the Texas Commission on the Arts Texas Touring Roster. Texas Touring Roster artists have been “deemed the best in their field by a panel of statewide experts.” Woody takes to the road throughout Texas frequently, as well as select dates in the U.S. and Canada. His live performances, whether solo, with his touring Trio (WR3) or with his full quintet/sextet, have been described as “transcendent” by KDRP radio personality, David Arnberger; engaging audiences through a sincere and “in the moment” connection to his music. Russell was a prominently featured artist on Season One of the CW Network’s, “Troubadour, TX”; airing weekly in over 20 million households nationwide from Sept. 2011 through Sept. 2012. He also toured as one of four artists in support of the program.

Growing up near a small Montana college town, Woody lays claim to a “magical childhood” in which a rural setting provided inspiration that still resonates with him today. “I grew up in a beautiful, peaceful place that was a blessing to have experienced as a child and that I have a lot of fond memories of. We lived on a dirt road. The smell of fresh cut alfalfa hung in the air. We watched the sun set from the front porch. I wondered at an infinitely starlit night sky, dreaming, pondering the bigger questions. I’d pedal my bike up and down that road, fish and float the creek behind my house in the summer time. We hiked the mountains. I learned to ski in some of the best snow conditions in the world. My childhood held a deep connection to the outdoors. I was, essentially, a north-country kid. And when the guitar came along – a gift my sister didn’t take to – I found it so fascinating. Exploring the instrument brought me closer to my inner world. Music was just always there, every bit as much as the nature of Montana, of Big Sky Country.”

But, there was a darker side, as well: parents that split up when he was ten years old and eventually his own struggles with substance abuse as a teenager. “I had some crazy years, took a lot of risks.”  Russell credits his mother for instilling some resolve that helped him make a much needed change. “She taught me, through her own actions, about compassion, kindness and self reliance. She allowed my creativity to guide me. I think she cultivated a quiet perseverance in us. I knew, even as a child, that she was just managing to hold it together by working hard, believing and hoping that my sister and I would grow in to the lives we wanted to lead.” Woody adds that his mother gave him the courage to move out of the house in his late teens and eventually leave Montana behind by the time he was just barely twenty. “I followed the music to Seattle when the opportunity came. That departure put an end to a lot of the trouble I was headed for, undoubtedly. My mother probably new that; as mother’s do have a sixth sense about their children’s well-being. My love for the music, a good bit a naivety and sheer willpower made for a new beginning. It still feels like a new beginning today. That’s the beauty of living a creative life. There’s a ever-present sense of uncertainty, but also an unmistakable newness to it.”

From a new home base in a city that offered much more culture and opportunity, a young Woody Russell began to connect with a larger community of musicians. He was, as he is now, always pursuing his own brand of music. “Being in Seattle was a first a bit scary for a country kid. But, it put me in touch with a music scene that forced me to find my way and hone my chops. I was never really interested in learning a lot of songs that were often seen as important to know by some of the older cats who were on the scene. So I made it harder on myself by avoiding those lessons. At that time, for me, it was a lot of blues-rock and some folky songwriters that I was in to, but my love for jazz was ever present. It was evolving from early on; I just didn’t know how to connect the dots yet. I was lucky to know some great musicians who instilled some important lessons in me. Eventually though, I had to make my own way toward understanding how all of these seemingly different styles would inform my own music.”

Fast forward to an eventual move to Austin with his, then, new wife, Jeanne. “Austin is a major music scene, with it’s own ups and downs, it’s own cliche’s, but a potent community of genuinely gifted musicians.” Woody Russell is now several albums and, in his own words, “light years” beyond the music of his earliest efforts. “I’m a late bloomer, I suspect, and perhaps I’ve always been an old soul.  I’ve had to carve out my own niche because I simply didn’t come to music through school or a more formal musical upbringing. It was purely a matter of heart and soul and raw discovery. Music was a language that spoke deeply to me as a kid and eventually became a passionate outlet, an identity and almost a forgone conclusion that I’d spend my life dedicated to this art-form.”

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