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,
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
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
Rather, Malone’s guitar is part of the larger ensemble, even if the
strings were added later, as is sometimes the modus operandi for
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
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
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
"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
Malone was born the first born in a family of five
and raised by working-class parents in semi-rural Albany, Georgia.
Malone’s father worked at a local Firestone rubber plant and his
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
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
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,
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
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
"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
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
like working with [vocalist] Eddie `Cleanhead’ Vinson before that,
even. I also worked with Little Anthony and the Imperials, Peabo
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
conglomerate now owned by French company Vivendi S.A.
Asked about his approach to performing, Malone, who will be
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
Hightstown, 609-490-7550. Preconcert chat with Malone at 7 p.m. $15.
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