you get noticed when you’re playing behind one of the most
beautiful, sensuous women to ever grace a jazz podium, who within
seconds of her appearance has already gotten under the skin of
every music-minded male in the audience. I’m of course waxing
symphonic over Diana
Krall, the event that caused Elvis Costello
to break faith with his atheism.
guitarist Russell Malone supporting Diana is to hardly see him
at all, so apparently shy and self-effacing is he: all indigo
serious and totally concentrated on listening and playing. But
in case you haven’t noticed, Malone has been invited to
play and/or record with the likes of Natalie Cole, Dianne Reeves,
Roy Hargrove, Cyrus Chestnut and Patti Austin, which isn’t
bad notice in a very competitive field.
that ‘shyness’-- that wildly false note went by the
wayside when I saw him perform at the 2007 Montreal Jazz Festival. With the exception
of Tommy Emmanuel, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone
so naturally extroverted and at home on stage, as comfortable
as Canadians indoors in the depths of winter. When Russell Malone
plays live, he not only makes a point of making the audience a
part of the musical happening, he plays those notes masterfully.
Which is to say, the many moods of Malone are always in service
of the situation and song under consideration.
long-time peer recognition, Malone is only beginning to get known
by the larger public. Since 1992, he has quietly recorded seven
albums that include lots of originals. He modestly claims that
he only came into his own when he turned 35 (he’s now 44),
when he realized that he was trying too hard to answer to others’
expectations instead of his own, and that the record label he
needed had to be one that served the musician before the market.
He now records with the indie label Outside Music.
the essential Malone is to gravitate toward the sound that appeals
to him when playing the music that best defines him: the ballads
he loves and plays so effortlessly well. No matter how large or
small the venue, Malone’s contagious inner calm and confidence
always translate into those gorgeously braided, willowy chord
progressions that flow like easy ripples on a still lake in a
perfect summer day, while his warm single note improvisations
recall the tingly, water ping effect the great Oscar Peterson
was able to produce on the ivories.
to Pat Metheny’s heavily synthesized sound, Malone’s
is organic, and like the person himself, is more available and
exposed. As a choice and statement, it reveals how Malone feels
about himself in the world, just as Metheny’s sound situates
himself in that same world.
note is metal-coated and downtown slick; it is sent off into the
world pre-packaged in a carapace. If the Malone note is embraced
for its warmth, the Metheny for its chill, which isn’t to
say that from its own materials the latter doesn’t fail
to weave a particular spell that identifies the guitarist to audiences
worldwide. The listener readily embraces it, much like he embraced
the below-zero Jimmy Smith Hammond B-3 organ sound when it first
hit the streets in the 50s, because it toughened and tempered
him, provided him with a groove that enabled him to better negotiate
the malaises of modern times. And if purists tend to refuse that
sound, they cannot deny its historical relevance in the context
of jazz since it responds to a direct psychic need that facilitates
the mind’s increasingly desperate quest for equilibrium
in a world whose imbalances and dislocations have become all too
Malone’s vast repertoire that runs the gamut from the ballads
to Latin, R & B and even rock, some have accused the guitarist
of being all over the map. Malone’s best answer is that
it’s the performer’s prerogative to play what moves
him, just as it’s the listener’s choice to sign off:
borders are convenient labels record producers come up with to
better isolate and sell their product.
so few guitarists are capable of pulling it off, the growing contingent
of Russell Malone devotees are hopeful the maestro will finally
commit himself to a solo CD comprised of the slow stuff he confesses
to liking so much; original ballads made unique by madly inspired,
rhapsodic chord progressions that are signature plaintive and
sweet, and ever so lush with life. Even though the lithium-light
ascents and descents come fast and delirious, they possess a seamless
quality as if the legato effect is mysteriously at work, which
speaks to the ease with which he plays and why the introspective,
meditative quality of his ballads is never compromised. It is
among his many accomplishments that there are only a handful of
guitarists whose passing chords are so distinct and substantial
as to be equal to melody. For this reason alone, Russell Malone
must surely be counted among today’s elite guitarists
of his prodigious gifts, there’s no reason not to believe
that his best years -- and he has already entered the zone --
are yet to come.