Russell Malone is a guitarist’s guitarist. He shares with Joe Pass the distinction for being equally a superb accompanist and leader, as evidenced by recordings with Diana Krall, Harry Connick, Jr., Shirley Horn and Wynton Marsalis—as well as his own recordings. He opens MaxJazz's inaugural String Series with two originals for jazz quartet. "You Should have Known Better" is a breezy, almost pop-oriented piece that features Malone’s brilliant chord soloing, heavily influenced by George Benson. "Blues for Mulgrew" is a straight-ahead offering that blazes at light speed out of the current Jazz Mainstream. Malone plays musical pinochle with pianist Martin Bejerano, weaving in and out of those same twelve bars.
The first standard is Billy Strayhorn’s "Something to Live For." Here, Malone shows his superb ballad stripes, playing is a light grace that never once stoops toward cliché. The very same can be said for the solo recital of Carole King’s "You’ve Got a Friend," a song that has been patiently waiting to enter the jazz standards canon. Malone shows that he can play the guitar as one would play the piano. His tone is thick and round and sumptuous and is nowhere better showcased. His quartet interpretation of the Carpenters’ "We’ve Only Just Begun" exists in perfect harmony with the King composition.
Vibraphonist Joe Locke joins Malone on bopish "Sugar Buzz," both musicians swinging relentlessly while squeezing out 64th notes effortlessly. This is certainly a virtuoso performance vehicle. Alto saxophonist Gary Barth Joins him on "Mandela," providing the piece a John Coltrane-esque plaintive wail reminiscent of "Alabama" and "A Love Supreme." Russell Malone is an understated guitarist whose technique and taste have made him very much in demand during recent history.