Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the October 10,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Russell Malone Can Do It All

Don’t be fooled by Jersey City-based guitarist Russell

Malone’s latest album. "Heartstrings" (Verve Records, 2001)

may be a quiet, mellow collection of Great American songbook ballads

without vocals, but this guitarist can get down, get bluesy, and get

funky with the best of the best.

"It’s a record of ballads with strings, as you know," Malone

says of his new record, produced by the formidable Tommy LiPuma,

engineered

by Al Schmitt, and arranged by Johnny Mandel, three top technicians

of the jazz record production business. "It was an album I’ve

always wanted to do. I’ve always liked to play ballads and I’ve

fantasized

about how my guitar would sound wrapped with strings."

Although Malone has plenty of chops and great technique, as anyone

who has seen him at the New York jazz club, Birdland, can attest,

on "Heartstrings," the guitar parts are not always

foregrounded.

Rather, Malone’s guitar is part of the larger ensemble, even if the

strings were added later, as is sometimes the modus operandi for

arranger

Mandel.

Malone, who performs Friday, October 12, at thePeddei School, explains

that LiPuma — a legendary record man who worked his way up from

packing and shipping records at a distributor in his hometown of

Cleveland

many years ago to his current post in senior management at Verve —

took an interest in him after he heard him perform with Diana Krall’s

band. "He heard me play in a concert with her before we went into

the studio, and then we went into the studio and did Diana’s record,

`All For You.’

"These are just songs that I always liked. When we got down to

actually doing the record, Tommy wanted me to simply write down a

list of songs," he says, "and he did the same thing. We

bounced

ideas off each other and this is what we came up with."

LiPuma is a meticulous, detail-oriented producer who was behind the

console for several critically-acclaimed recordings by Miles Davis,

Alpine resident George Benson as well as Jimmy Scott’s Warner Bros.

debut, "All The Way."

Malone’s biography accompanying his new record cites blues master

B.B. King as a primary influence on shaping the young guitarist’s

style.

"B.B. is definitely one of the guys I listened to growing up,"

Malone explains. "He’s a very special person to me. I finally

got a chance to record with him about three years ago, on his tribute

to Louis Jordan. It was great to be in the studio with one of my

idols."

Malone was born the first born in a family of five

siblings

and raised by working-class parents in semi-rural Albany, Georgia.

Malone’s father worked at a local Firestone rubber plant and his

mother

still works in a textile factory near Albany.

"My mother sang and played organ in church," says Malone,

"so everybody in the family sang, we all had to sing in church.

Growing up in Georgia, in the black family, music is very

dominant,"

he says. "You had to participate in some form of music."

After graduating from high school in 1982, he skipped the college

option and moved straight to Atlanta, hoping to broaden his experience

as a jazz and blues guitarist in Atlanta’s then-lively club scene.

Growing up, and even now, he stresses, "I listen to all the guys,

everyone who’s had something to contribute to the guitar as a whole,

not just jazz guitar. His influences include not just King, but also

Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Freddie Green, Chet Atkins, George

Barnes, and Teddy Bunn.

"There are a lot of guys who recorded in the 1930s and ’40s who

contributed a lot to the guitar," he points out.

While many critics consider Malone one of the "young lions"

of traditional jazz, on a par with Cyrus Chestnut, Wycliffe Gordon,

and the Marsalis brothers, he is by no means a "jazz snob."

In a relaxed club setting, such as the set this author caught at

Birdland

in January, Malone ripped into some heavy duty-blues tunes and then

joked around by playing a well-known country tune.

"You won’t see me do that at a concert," he cautions,

explaining

that kind of joking around is best left for a jazz club’s third set,

for a small audience. "That was just something I did to throw

the audience a curve. I love country music, so I would never put it

down, and there are some serious musicians in country music."

Asked if it was any kind of a culture shock moving from Georgia to

New York City, Malone says he came up here on visits that would

include

club gigs and plenty of sitting in at other musicians’ gigs in the

jazz capital of the world.

Malone moved from Atlanta to to Jersey City in 1994. It happened when

he was playing at an Atlanta club that was visited by two musicians

on tour with Sting: saxophonist Branford Marsalis and pianist Kenny

Kirkland, he explains.

"They heard me and said, `You’re good, when are you gonna come

up to New York?’ I really took that to heart and instead of moving

up here, I would just come up and visit and soak up what I could.

I went to a lot of jam sessions and just heard a lot of great

music,"

he adds.

"I got a chance to play at Bradley’s club and I got chance to

play with pianist John Hicks and a whole lot of guys I used to just

read about," he says, "but Branford was definitely the one

who encouraged me to move to New York."

Only after some years of visiting New York City as much as possible

and networking with other musicians as much as he could did he decide

to relocate to Jersey City.

Malone’s first big break would have to have been his chance to tour

with legendary Hammond B-3 organist Jimmy Smith. He was part of

Smith’s

rough-and-ready touring band for three years, from 1987 to 1990. He

then joined Harry Connick Jr.’s band from 1990 to 1994, before hooking

up with pianist and vocalist Diana Krall, who, commercially at least,

is the hottest musician in jazz right now (with the possible exception

of veteran guitarist Pat Metheny). Malone worked with Krall’s touring

band until 1999.

"It was great to play with Jimmy, but before that I played with

several people who may not be as famous but the experience was just

as valuable," he says.

"I worked with [vocalist] Freddie Cole, and there were other

situations,

like working with [vocalist] Eddie `Cleanhead’ Vinson before that,

even. I also worked with Little Anthony and the Imperials, Peabo

Bryson,

and all of these experiences were great."

"For every experience I’ve ever been in, I’ve always tried to

take something away from it, because everyone’s got a different style

and a different lesson to teach," he says.

"Working with Jimmy Smith was great, because he is the master

of the Hammond B-3 and he’s had a lot of great guitar players with

him through the years."

Malone has also been recording and touring under his own name since

his self-titled debut for Columbia Records was released in 1992. He

followed up with a second album and then recorded for the Venus label

in Japan. "Heartstrings" is Malone’s third release for Verve

Records, now part of the Universal Music Group, a massive record

company

conglomerate now owned by French company Vivendi S.A.

Asked about his approach to performing, Malone, who will be

accompanied

at Peddie School by Richie Goods, bass, E.J. Strickland, drums, and

Richard Johnson, piano, says he never uses a set list. But he likes

to keep a blueprint in his mind.

"I have a blueprint inside my head that I’ll go by, but I try

to be very much in tune with what the audience is responding to. I

do have a guide inside my head, but I deviate from it."

Asked if his mood dictates whether he’ll be playing jazz or blues,

Malone says simply, "I just play, I don’t think about whether

I’m playing jazz or blues. A lot of things influence the way I play,

but I’m always in tune with my audience. I want the audience to be

happy but I want myself to be happy too," he says.

"The public is what pays the bills so you’ve got to give them

what they want — without dumbing down the music — and one

thing I found out from being on the road is that people aren’t as

closed-minded as you think. If you give them a good performance and

you’re honest and sincere about it, they’ll dig it."

— Richard J. Skelly

Russell Malone Quartet , Mount-Burke Theater, Peddie

School,

Hightstown, 609-490-7550. Preconcert chat with Malone at 7 p.m. $15.

Friday, October 12, 8 p.m.


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