MaxJazz, which has showcased jazz musicians in series devoted to various instruments (piano, horns, vocals), tapped guitarist Russell Malone to launch its String Series—an inspired choice, as Malone is one of the fastest rising stars on the contemporary jazz horizon, a superb technician who plays with exceptional warmth and congeniality.
Playground is basically a quartet date showcasing Malone’s working group with brief guest appearances by two highly accomplished and widely underrated artists, vibraphonist Joe Locke (“Sugar Buzz”) and alto saxophonist Gary Bartz (“Mandela”). Malone wrote six of the ten selections, including those two, and while I’ve nothing against Malone the guitarist/composer, the songs that most pleased my ear are the four that weren’t—Billy Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For,” Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields’ “Remind Me,” Richard and Karen Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun” (set to a seductive Latin beat) and Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Malone plays unaccompanied on “Friend,” as he does on “Remind Me,” showing in each instance that he needs no help whatever to weave a lustrous musical tapestry. In fact, without disparaging the contributions of pianist Martin Bejerano, bassist Tassili Bond or drummer E.J. Strickland, which are sizable, I wouldn’t have been displeased by an entire album of Malone’s solo guitar. Perhaps MaxJazz could consider doing that at some future date.
Meanwhile, we have Playground, and it’s a largely pleasurable outing with splendid blowing by all hands. My preference for the four songs noted above isn’t meant to imply that Malone’s compositions are without merit — as a whole they’re pretty good, especially “Playground” and “Invisible Colors.” The rapid-fire “Sugar Buzz” gives everyone a chance to show his chops, while the darkly painted “Mandela” is a sturdy vehicle for Bartz’s unvarnished alto and Malone’s chordal meditations. A solid debut for the String Series and for Malone as a member of the MaxJazz team.
Personnel: Russell Malone, guitar; Martin Bejerano, piano; Tassili Bond, bass; E.J. Strickland, drums. Special guests