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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."

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