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Russell Malone: Guitar Master

R.J. DeLuke By

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There's something about singers. For me, they know how to get the most out of a song and out of a lyric, regardless of genre —Russell Malone
"People make too big of a deal about being self taught. Because nobody is completely self taught," ruminates Russell Malone, one of the best loved jazz guitarists by both fans and critics. His sound is full and rich; his fingers fleet,the ideas springing from his head to his hands with speed and dexterity. But the origins of his style and the status he's achieved do not have academic connections.

He's learned from people. And not just about music. He appreciates acquiring knowledge of all kinds. It's evident in the way he speaks—with an air of deep knowledge, understated confidence and deep respect. He relishes observing the character of those around him and incorporating that not only into music but in daily existence. Malone is astute and, as such, open and welcoming of ideas. He can separate the wheat from the chaff in the world of music, business and life.

Malone's travels from Albany, Georgia, to Atlanta, to New York City—and his playing with people like Jimmy Smith, Freddy Cole, Harry Connick, Jr., Diana Krall, Ron Carter, Sonny Rollins, Ray Brown and others—have contributed to the construction of quite the career. He's an ace guitarist who can swing like mad, scorch the blues or provide just the right, tasty accompaniment. A first-call sideman, he also leads his own exciting groups, something on exhibit on his 2015 release Love Looks Good On You (HighNote).

"I learned a lot musically from working with my heroes like Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Rollins. But I learned so much just studying the men. Watching how they deal with life. How they deal with certain situations. How they stand. How they eat. All of that stuff has an effect on how they deal with the music," says Malone. "I've been so fortunate sitting and talking with a lot of these players."

When Malone talks about learning to play his instrument, he speaks in terms that can be applied outside holding the piece of wood with six strings stretched from one end to the other.

"You may start out not having access to a lot of academic information. But I think if you are really serious and you want to get to another level, you have to admit there's a lot of things you don't know," he says. "There were things I needed to get together in my playing. I figured early on there was only so much I could learn on my own. I sought out musicians who could show me things, who were better than me. Because you can't get better playing with people who are always telling you you're the best player in this situation or that situation. After awhile, you become complacent. But I've had the good fortune to learn from a lot of great musicians. Some of them aren't famous. I learned a lot just from watching them and hanging out and talking with them. And asking questions. So people make too big of a deal about a person being self taught."

His first exposure to the guitar was in church. He knew quickly that would be the vehicle for his personal expression. He'd always liked music, listening to records his mother played by Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers, the Fantastic Violinaires, the Dixie Hummingbirds. He was attracted to the vocals as well as the guitar.

"There's something about singers. For me, they know how to get the most out of a song and out of a lyric, regardless of genre. I'm as much influenced by vocalists as I am instrumentalists. More so by vocalists," he says. "In fact, people have said to me—one of the greatest compliments I ever receive—certain things I play have a lyrical quality. I appreciate that because it's something that I work on. A lot of it I have to attribute to listening to vocalists."

Those qualities can be heard on his recordings, like last year's offering that is done with a quartet that includes drummer Willie Jones III, bassist Gerald Cannon and—opting to move away from the guitar-bass-drums trio—pianist Rick Germanson.

"I like playing with a really good pianist. I've had the good fortune to play with a few. If they're listening and they don't get in the way, it's a lot of fun. A lot of times when a guitarist and a pianist play together, it can become disastrous if they're not listening and they're not sensitive. Every now and then I run across a pianist that didn't listen. I always make a conscious effort not to ever play with that pianist again. So far, I've had pretty good luck with piano players."

Among the pianists he had the good fortune of playing with was Mulgrew Miller, a giant on the instrument who Malone has linked up with over the years, including his tenure with the Ron Carter Trio. The new recording opens "Soul Leo," with the Miller composition. "He left a huge void when he got out of here," he says of Miller, who died in 2013. "When he was around, the bar was raised. We all miss him. But we have to continue. The best way to continue and to forge ahead is to not let the standard drop."

Malone says the record was easy to make, done in about six hours. The band had been honing the music for some two years on the road. He doesn't believe in using a lot of studio time. He prefers letting the professionalism and spirit of the musicians take over. "It's very important for working bands to document what they've been doing. This music was road tested. We played it in front of several audiences. So we got a chance to see how people responded to it. When you get a favorable response from the crowd, that's a good sign that you got something that should be documented."

Other titles on the outstanding disk include "Ellie's Love Theme" from the Isaac Hayes Shaft film score, Thad Jones' "The Elder," Freddie Hubbard's "Suite Sioux" and another film piece "Your Zowie Face," by Jerry Goldsmith via the 1960s spy spoof In Like Flint.

"I've always picked songs that are off the beaten path. I take pride in knowing a lot of songs. Plus, I like a lot of different types of music," says the guitarist. "All of my favorite musicians have always done that. Miles Davis always took songs from some of the most unlikely places. Sonny Rollins is another who does that. I take pride in knowing a lot of music and appreciating a lot of music. I'm not one of those musicians who will look down their nose at a pop song. A good song is a good song. A good melody is a good melody. If it's good, it's good. Period."

His broad view of music comes from his beginning in Albany, Georgia, where as a kid there wasn't a lot of jazz being played. But he noticed the quality and variety of music he heard on television and radio. "There was more quality entertainment on TV. You could turn it on and see guys playing instruments. You don't see much of that now ... You'd turn on the TV and you would see country shows like 'Hee Haw.' Porter Wagner had a show. With that big platinum hairdo. I remember seeing Merle Travis on his show. That was very enlightening. Seeing Merle Travis, seeing Chet Atkins. Seeing George Benson on "Soundstage." Seeing B.B. King on television. The 'Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.'"

Shows like "The Midnight Special" and "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" were also an influence. "It wasn't jazz, but these musicians were dealing on a high level. I was aware of all of these things that were going on. And listening to the soul music of the day. There was a lot of music going on and I was open to all of it."

Malone knew early on that music was his passion and would be a career pursuit. When he got his hands on a guitar, all the music that went in his ears had an influence on what came out. As he branched out from his home town, his early road gigs were with a gospel group, traveling around the south for no real money. It was in high school that he played his first paying gig at a club. It came from a jam session he attended at the House of Jazz. He went there without his ax, but asked to sit in with an organ trio. They worked out on "Billie's Bounce."

"I must have made an impact because I would come back and they never kicked me out," he quips.

A couple years later, Malone recounts, he was working at a show store and a stranger came in with "a certain swagger ... He asked me to help him find a pair of comfortable shoes, because he wanted to be comfortable while he was playing the organ. When he said 'organ,' that caught my attention."

In conversation, Malone discovered the man was playing at the now-familiar House of Jazz. Malone eventually showed up, sat in and got a paying gig. Another interesting Albany experience came via the proprietor of a music store where Malone was working. Hunter Parker was also an alto saxophonist who told the young guitarist he needed more experience.

"He gave me a gig playing with him at this club which, I found out later on, had a bunch of Klan members as members. They had no love for me. I didn't know this at the time, but he told me later some guys were thinking about beating me up," Malone recalls, now able to chuckle at the notion. "I think the word 'lynching' was used. This old white guy [Parker], he looked out for me. I never forgot that."

Malone eventually moved to Atlanta, after a brief time in Houston. His pockets weren't full, but the guitarist was glad to be experiencing the life of a musician. Atlanta was the beginning of larger steps.

"The thing that was cool about Atlanta was that they had jazz festivals there. I got a chance to meet a lot of the people who came through. Something else that was fascinating about living in Atlanta was they had a bunch of jam sessions. One, at a place called the Living Room Lounge, started at 1 o'clock in the morning and went until 5, which was fascinating to me because everything closed down early in Albany, Georgia. It was like a ghost town, man. The only places that stayed open late were places you didn't want to be. One was the emergency room and the other was the police station."

Malone met Branford Marsalis there in1985. The saxophonist was among the first to put forth the notion of moving to New York. Later that year, Malone made his first Big Apple visit. "That was when my life changed again, man. I said, 'I have to come to this place.' I didn't move there immediately. I was a young man with a family, but I eventually came to New York, which is where I am now."

Before that move, however, Malone—at age 22—made a valuable connection joining the band of Freddy Cole, brother of the legendary Nat King Cole and a fine singer in own right. "Freddy was the one who pulled my coat to paying close attention to lyrics and phrasing."

The two were traveling in Cole's old station wagon that was jammed with luggage and Malone's amplifier and guitar. Cole slipped a cassette into the car's player—a Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic recording called The Trumpet Battle 1952. It included a ballad medley with Benny Carter playing "Cocktails for Two," Roy Eldridge playing "It's the Talk of the Town" and Lester Young playing "These Foolish Things Remind Me of You."

"I never forgot that," he fondly recalls. "We sat and listened. When each soloist would come on, Freddy would make comments about what they were doing and he'd make suggestions to me about what I should be doing. He was trying to help me get to a certain level. He also talked to me about learning the lyrics to songs. He said a lot of musicians would make the mistake of listening to instrumentalists to learn songs. He said, 'That's OK, but if you really want to get to the heart of the matter, listen to vocalists.' He talked about Frank Sinatra. He talked about Ella Fitzgerald. He talked about his brother, Nat. About how they got the most out of a song."

"But while we were listening to the horn players play these songs, he was pointing out the vocal qualities that they were demonstrating in their playing. Breathing and leaving space. Not embellishing too much. If you notice, whenever I play ballads, I don't do a whole lot of embellishing with the melody. Maybe a little decoration or two from time to time, but I don't stray to far from the melody when I play ballads. If I hadn't gone through him, I don't think Diana Krall or Harry Connick would have hired me. People say what I did with those two singers, they liked that. I'm flattered. But I think they were getting the benefit of those things I was taught by Freddy. I have to give credit where credit is due."

Once in New York, "I wanted to get as much experience as I could, playing with as many people as I could. A lot of young musicians I've seen, they come to New York and they spend time playing with one band. That's all good if that's what you want to do. That never worked for me. I'm very selective about what I do, but at the same time, I'm always open to new experiences and playing with other people. There's always something you can learn. I take pride in being flexible."

By 1988, Malone had taken a gig with organ icon Jimmy Smith. At a gig with Smith inside the Edison Hotel on 46th Street he met people like Benson, Grady Tate and Rodney Jones. Malone had been playing with Smith for nearly two years when a friend who was working with Connick, bassist Ben Wolfe, introduced Malone to the singer/pianist.

"He wanted to hear me play. I told him where I was going to be. He came over and went to this jam session and he hired me that night. He was just on the heels of 'When Harry Met Sally,' that film. He said he was going into the studio to make another record and would love to have me on board." Malone first had to clear it with Smith. He had a phone conversation with his boss and "I'm thinking everything was cool. I'm trying to give him four months notice. I hung up the phone thinking that was pretty painless. The next day I got an express mail envelope and it was a letter of termination, from his wife. He and his wife were pissed. How dare you leave Jimmy Smith and go play with this guy?"

Malone chuckles at the memory, even though he lost out on weeks of work. He joined Connick's band in 1989. "I played with Harry at the Newport Jazz Festival. George Benson was at the festival that day, playing with the Count Basie Orchestra. When George saw me with Harry, he said, 'Is Jimmy still made at you?" I told George what went down. He said, 'Don't worry. He'll get over it.' Fifteen or 20 years later, I ended up playing with Jimmy again on this recording called Dot Com Blues. So we were cool after that. I guess his ego was bruised. He gave me a chance to work with him and I put my time in. But then you have to progress. You have to keep moving. So that's what I did."

It was Connick who got Malone his first recording contract, and with a major label, Columbia. The guitarist recorded his self-titled debut album for Columbia in 1992 and Black Butterfly in 1993. He played with Connick for almost five years, through 1994. In 1995 he met Krall while playing a gig with Miller and Peter Washington at the former jazz hangout bar Bradley's in New York. Krall introduced herself and invited Malone to play on a Nat "King" Cole tribute album that turned out to be All For You. Malone enlisted bassist Paul Keller to join the effort. The trio played the Montreal Jazz Festival and Malone stayed with Krall from 1995 until 1999.

"I worked with her for awhile and we had a good time. She's a nice person. It was mutually beneficial for both of us," he says.

Another important relationship is the one forged more recently with Ron Carter, with whom he still performs occasionally.

"That's my man. Ron's one of my heroes. If I can be there for Ron Carter, I'm not going to ever say no to him, if I'm available. He's one of the reasons I play this music," Malone says with pride."When I first got into jazz at the age of 12, I was listening to these great guitar players like George Benson, Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. I was definitely focusing on the guitar. But there was something about Ron Carter's personality that seemed to come through, no matter what musical situation he's in. At some point, sooner or later, everything seems to revolve around what he's doing. Ray Brown had that same kind of personality. I had the good fortune to play with him too. Those guys, everything they played had a place and a purpose. There's never any randomness going on. They have good sounds. They are harmonically apt and nothing is frivolous. When you play with a bassist on that level, it kind of spoils you when you come across somebody who really doesn't have it together. I love Ron."

Malone has always benefited from his musical relationships and he's open about why: There is always stuff beyond the bandstand.

"I got to become friends with Phil Woods. I didn't see him on a regular basis, but whenever I did it would be great. We were on a jazz cruise back in 2006. I got to hang with him and even got a chance to play with him. One day, I was doing a duet with this singer, Jackie Cain. Jackie was very frail. Her voice was shaky and her pitch wasn't quite there. I accompanied her on this Alec Wilder tune, 'While We're Young.' She was singing this song. I remember looking in the audience. Phil Woods is sitting in the front row with his oxygen tank connected to him. He was crying the whole time. The man was balling. I could barely play the tune for watching him ... After we finished the song, I put my guitar away and I sat down next to him. He said, 'Kid, let me tell you something. People always make a big fuss out of the next young hotshot player being able to play his ass off. Anybody can do it when you're young and healthy. Anybody can do that. That doesn't mean anything. But when you start to get older, you start having these ailments, these health problems. We start losing friends. You start becoming aware of your mortality. You don't want to waste anything.' He started about Benny Carter. That's one of the reasons he loved him so much. He talked about Johnny Hodges. They did it until they couldn't do it anymore. People make too much fuss over young players being able to play well. He said, 'Try doing that shit when you get to be 75 or when you're sick. Things don't work the way they used to work. Those phrases become very precious. You don't want to waste notes, you don't want to waste time. You don't want to waste energy.' I never forgot that, man. He was a heavy guy."

Sonny Rollins is another example. Malone played with the master for about a year.

"The thing I miss the most about that gig, aside from the music, was the conversations. In the airport, when we'd be waiting on a flight, or on a bus traveling from one place to the next. To hear him talk about the people who were inspirational to him. He would talk about Oscar Pettiford, Lester Young, Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins and Clifford Brown. He'd get real emotional. He told me Clifford Brown was the main inspiration for him to get his life back on track. I take pride in knowing songs. But I learned a lot of tunes with Sonny. He knows a lot of songs, man. And Sonny knows the lyrics to these songs. At sound check, we'd be playing a tune. He'd get on the microphone and start singing the lyrics. That's great, man. Not to mention the playing. This guy gives 100 percent all the time."

"That's something I've noticed talking about the old timers," Malone says. "When they talk about some of their contemporaries and their peers, they would get emotional. I remember when I first met Jimmy Smith. He was kind of nuts. He would do a lot of things just to shock you. Just to see what kind of reaction he'd get out of you. But then, you'd get him into a one-on-one situation and he would be a completely different guy. I remember talking to him one night about Wes Montgomery. He would tear up when he would talk about Wes. He'd tear up when he talked about Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis or Bud Powell. Those things you can't get out of a book or out of a school."

Malone carries those lessons and experiences as he advances his prolific career, one that reaches the bar that has been set so high.

"I can't complain. Life is good," he says. "It's such a blessing to play music, man. As long as people are listening, I'll play. I'm always trying to get to that next level. The paint never dries."

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