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Benny Green and Russell Malone

Benny Green and Russell Malone Benny Green and Russell Malone Morrice Blackwell
Dr. Billy Taylor says that Benny Green and Russell Malone are " .the future of jazz." Taylor was among the members of a packed audience during the first of two spectacular performances by Green and Malone at Washington DC’s Kennedy Center Jazz Club. During the performance, members of the audience frequently voiced their approval and support for the performers’ efforts. It was definitely a warm, shared experience for the performers and the listeners.

Green and Malone are a study in contrasts. Green is a serious, focused musician whose offbeat sense of humor surfaces unexpectedly. Malone is a gregarious, charming partner whose affection for Green is obvious. Both men share a mutual respect and a genuine friendship. They combine acute musical instincts and expert musicianship as they weave their piano and guitar sounds together to form a lustrous garment of sound that envelops listeners.

Jazz Review: How did you meet each other?

Benny Green:

Russell Malone: (laughing) No, that’s not it. The first time we met was at Fat Tuesday’s. Benny was playing, this was, I think in 1989?

Benny Green: That’s about right, ’89 or ’90.

Russell Malone: Actually, the first time I saw Benny play with was Art Blakey down in Atlanta in ‘89. Then I saw you later that same year when I was up in New York he was playing with Freddie Hubbard. You guys were making a record, Benny, Freddie Hubbard, Tony Regis, and Carl Allen, I think anyway, that’s where we first officially met. I’ve always admired Benny as a musician; and as I’ve gotten to know him as a human being, I admire him as a human. I actually called Benny to play on my very first recording, but he wasn’t available. I always kept him on my mind. We’ve known each other now for over ten years.

Jazz Review: When did you perform together for the first time?

Benny Green: The first time we performed as a duo, we had already been playing together in various situations. Russell had played on three of my recordings at that point, and we were already very close friends. We were on tour for Ray Brown’s seventy-fifth birthday in Europe. The tour was just Ray Brown. We were booked, in the course of this tour, at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland to play as a duo. Russell and I had talked about the idea of playing duo before. Although we’d never tried it out, we both had a good intuition about it, because we’re close friends and there’s a lot of common ground between us. We have different personalities, but in a harmonious way, I’d say. Anyway, we were booked to play at the festival as a duo; and we decided we wouldn’t have any rehearsal. We just got together in the dressing room fifteen minutes before the show and discussed a few tunes that we might play. We said we’d just take it from there and see what happened.

Russell Malone: Remember, we were up in Montreal, Canada - I think it was in 1995 - on tour together, and we would get together in Benny’s room in the daytime; we’d just hang out and talk. He had a little electric keyboard and I’d bring my guitar by, and we’d just play, and it just felt great. I said, "Whoa, we should probably investigate this a little further."

Jazz Review: So, the communication was there.

Russell Malone: Oh yeah, definitely.

Jazz Review: What is the best thing about your performing partnership?

Benny Green: We have fun, we listen to one another, we challenge one another, we trust one another. We’re doing what we enjoy, and we’re not just playing for each other, we’re playing for the people. I would say the best thing is that we’re doing what we love.

Russell Malone: We both like good, beautiful songs, we both like to swing, and for the most part, our philosophy is the same: to swing and to keep the standard of the music high. I think that’s the best way to pay tribute to the people that we play with, to keep that standard high and not let it drop.

Jazz Review: How do you complement each other as performers, and as people?

Russell Malone: Wow, that’s an interesting question. A lot has to do with us liking each other personally. When you are on the bandstand with someone you have a personal connection with, it makes you want to really put out and play for them. You don’t want to let your musical partner down, because he’s listening to every note that I play, and vice versa. He inspires me to stay on my p’s and q’s, and vice versa. I think that the best way to complement each other in a musical situation, is to come to the bandstand with respect for the music and respect for the people that you’re playing with.

Benny Green: On the surface, Russell is a gregarious person, and I’m more of an introvert; and yet we both know each other well enough to know that beneath that surface, there’s a lot of other sides. Russell’s a very passionate person; I’m a very humorous person. There’s always more to any human being than what you see on that surface. I think there’s a natural chemistry between us as friends; and there’s really no separation between the rapport that we feel when we’re in conversation and when we’re playing music, it’s one in the same.

Russell Malone: And also, being able to talk about other things other than music. I think it makes the music even deeper when you get together and relate, talk to each other about life, life and love, our pain, our sorrows, our families, all of that has an effect on how the music is played.

Jazz Review: So you have more of a three-dimensional relationship, instead of just on the stage that’s a good thing.

Russell Malone: That’s a very good thing, because this music is about life, and living.

Jazz Review: How do you communicate during a show when you generally can’t talk to each other?

Benny Green: Oh, we can talk. You know, there’re no rules between Russell and I. We don’t want to have to have to talk too much, because it’s really precious, really special to play music. It’s the deepest level of communication that I’ve experienced, playing music with someone else who’s listening and open-minded and willing to go with the moment, free of agenda. But if there’s something to say, we’ll say it. I’m glad you asked that question, because of any musical situation I’ve been in, the communication feels great here with Russell. He really pays close attention to what I’m doing because he cares. He wants to play with me; we’re not just stacking the two instruments on top of one each other, there’s a fabric going on. There’s always a sense when I play with Russell, no matter how many times we’ve played before, that it always feels fresh. It always feels like, right where we are in this moment as human beings, that’s where we’re coming from when we play.

Jazz Review: What is the best thing about performing as a soloist, and the best thing about performing as a member of an ensemble?

Russell Malone:You mean, like when we are featured alone, Benny without me, and me without Benny? For me, it’s not a matter of one being better than the other, it’s just another musical situation to play in. There are sections in the show where he will play a solo piece on the piano, or I will play a solo piece on the guitar. You’re naked, you’re totally exposed, which can be a bit intimidating; but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. For me, if I’m playing a song, I’m at liberty to take more chances, to play different changes if I want to, and it’s great. But I also like the interaction with another instrument, because there’s nothing more exciting than when a group of people, be it two people or twenty people, when there is this telepathic connection going on, where if I start a phrase or he starts a phrase, we’ll finish it together. It’s kind of hard to describe that feeling, it’s a good feeling when that happens, when everybody’s listening and when everybody’s in tune to each other. That’s not something I experience when I’m playing by myself, obviously. They’re both nice situations to be in. I for one don’t like to play solo for too long; I do maybe one or two tunes per night by myself; but I really like to play with another musician.

Jazz Review: Sounds like you crave that "musical link."

Russell Malone: Oh yeah, there nothing like it. One thing I got from Ron Carter one time. He was telling me about that group that Miles Davis had, with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams. He was talking about how these guys just trusted each other so much until things just happened naturally. You got high level of musicianship, good songs, bad songs, whatever. You got the right musicians playing, and the music can go anywhere, there’s no telling what might happen.

Benny Green: Like Russell, I enjoy the fact that when I’m playing solo, if I want to do something completely spontaneous, I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to cue the other musicians, or if it’s something that’s rehearsed. Whatever it is, if it’s got a harmonic variation, I want to do something with the time rhythmically, what have you, I can go with whatever I feel like. As Russell said, it is a great challenge, you’re completely exposed, there’s no one to lean on. It actually transitions from being something that is a staggering task from the outside looking in; and when you’re actually immersed in it, it’s the most liberating thing it’s so enjoyable. Playing duo, I like the fact that Russell, being a different person than I am, is going to throw ideas at me that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. I’m naturally going to react to that and he’ll bring out elements in my musical character that were lying dormant, because I’m relating what he’s playing. It just brings out so many other shades to play with another musician of quality who’s listening to you, than just playing by yourself.

Jazz Review: Where do you perform most often? What kinds of gigs or venues are your favorites, and why?

Russell Malone: Let’s see, we’ve played concerts, outside venues, and we’ve played clubs. First of all, I’m happy to be playing anywhere; I’m happy to be able to make a living as a musician. If I had to narrow it down to one place that’s a favorite, it would be a club, a small club where the audience is right there. When you’re in a concert hall, it’s kind of difficult to feel the energy from the audience, whereas in a club it’s a little difficult to be relaxed. You can really connect with the audience when the atmosphere is not so stiff. You’ve heard the record and you hear the reaction of the crowd. It makes a difference to how I approach the music.

Benny Green: I have similar feelings, actually. The intimacy of a club: you can see the people, you can almost feel them; you can’t beat that. People will say things, and shout out, it’s almost like they’re up on the bandstand with you. That said, there’re times, we might be playing a large venue, and the spotlights are in our eyes and we can’t make out the faces out there, but you feel so much warmth. Potentially, any venue can feel like we’re having a communion with the people. I really appreciate that, when we feel close. Basically, I think that’s what people want when they go to a any musical performance, they want to fell you, they want to feel your humanity, your emotion. When that’s happening, you can be playing for five people or five thousand people, you know everyone knows it; and you feel a oneness with the people. You’re connected with the audience, you’re connected with your instrument, and it’s flowing. Those are the special moments that I really live for.

Jazz Review: Benny, you have been called " one of the hard-bop stars who graduated from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers training ground." Please explain this part of your background.

Benny Green: I was so honored to get to play with Art. Art is one of the strongest time players in the history of the music, and one of the finest bandleaders ever. Just to be around him was the highest privilege. Although Art had some of the finest small groups in the course of his career, you could put anyone up there on the stage with him, and the band’s gonna swing. He’s that powerful; his feeling is that propulsive. Once I actually started playing with him, I found out how very supportive he was, how much color and shading and nuance he brought to the music. I didn’t understand that until I played with him. I knew he had so much sheer power behind his drumming; but I didn’t realize how he takes whatever you’re playing and gives it form and dynamics, like waves of an ocean. And, when you play with him, night after night, you begin to come into a sense of your own in terms of pacing and developing a statement, if it’s a solo, an entire tune, or even a set. Just to be around that, to feel a part of it and be able to integrate the experience while I was with the Messengers, of going and playing gigs with other drummers, gave me the chance to realize that it was not just me that was making it happen. Art was carrying me a lot of the time. When you’re accustomed to playing with Art, and you play with other drummers, it’s as if the bottom dropped out.

Jazz Review: He provided a musical foundation for you.

Benny Green: Beyond foundation. He would catapult you forward, and that was his intention with the Jazz Messengers. He would take young people with a potential and help them develop a voice as a player and as a writer.

Jazz Review: Benny, how did your early training as a classical pianist influence your jazz playing technique?

Benny Green: Actually, I’ve had very little classical training, although I love listening to classical music very much. Whatever technical facility I have is mostly self-taught, just assimilating things I’ve heard from the players I admire, things people have told me.

Jazz Review: Russell, what was the first guitar you owned? What made you choose that instrument?

Russell Malone: The first guitar I ever owned was one that my mother bought me at the age of four. I don’t remember the brand name; but I can tell you what it looked like it was the ugliest shade of green you could imagine, Kermit the Frog green, and it had red strings on it. Actually, it was plastic, and I still remember it. It was about a foot and a half long. I used to play that guitar, and it also doubled as a baseball bat, because I would pick up rocks and pecans off the ground and hit it with the guitar.

Jazz Review: Why did you choose the guitar?

Russell Malone: I grew up in church; it was my first exposure to music. The first time I saw a guitar, it was perched up on one of the pews in the church. I was totally fascinated. We went to church on Sunday and stayed there. We heard all kinds of music and singing and rejoicing. I remember the first time I saw the guitar. We came to church one Sunday, and there was this odd-looking instrument; I had no idea what it was. I was very fascinated by how it looked. I went and got a closer look at it; and I saw this cable that ran from this little plug into this box. Then this gentleman started to play, and I was captured by the sound of it. I was attracted to the look of it first, and then I was attracted to the sound of it. Even at that age, I noticed how people would respond to hearing music, not just the guitar, but any music. You got all types of emotional reactions. I remember hearing people cry, some would fall out and start to shout and then they would have to be carried out of the church, all of these different types of reactions just by hearing music. So, even at that age, I was aware of how just how powerful this gift of music is. Every Sunday, I’d end up in the corner watching these guys play. My mother, being as perceptive as she was, went and bought me a guitar. I remember the first time I got it, I strummed it it wasn’t even tuned and I don’t remember what kind of chord I played at four years old. All I remember is the sound of this little plastic guitar and feeling the vibrations resonate through my body; I can still feel it now.

Jazz Review: The guitar is such an intimate instrument.

Russell Malone: Someone once said that it’s the only instrument that you hold close to your heart.

Jazz Review: Who were your earliest musical influences?

Russell Malone: My earliest musical influence was gospel music. My mom has a beautiful singing voice. I used to hear her walking around the house, she’d be cleaning and cooking and singing these spirituals. She’d also play records by Mahalia Jackson, The Dixie Hummingbirds, Sam Cook. There was a lot of gospel music played around my house. Later on, I got turned on to B.B. King. At the age of nine, I saw him on television on "Sanford and Son." That was a turning point, as well as seeing George Benson perform on television at the age of twelve. Music was much hipper; television was much hipper when we were growing up in the 1970s. Porter Waggoner had a show, and I remember seeing Merle Travis on his show. I would see Chet Atkins on television. I would turn on "Grand Ole Opry" on Saturday night; I would love it. It was country music; but it featured a guitar. That music, in its own way, swung, I think. Seeing Glen Campbell on "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour" I would watch all these shows. He’s a great guitar player.

Benny Green: The first jazz pianist I heard was Thelonious Monk. My father was listening to an album of his called "Monk’s Dream" almost every day from the time I was born. The next jazz pianist I discovered was McCoy Tyner. Like Russell, I first heard him on public television in the 1970s, and I became a fan as a teenager. Some of my other early influences were Art Tatum, Erol Garner, Bud Powell, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson; those are people that I was listening to when I was a teenager.

Jazz Review: Were you involved with music at school? What kind of music programs did your area have?

Benny Green: I was very much so, from the time I went into the fourth grade. We lived in Berkeley, California. There was a man named Phil Hardyman; and he ran a jazz program in all the public schools in Berkeley, starting in the fourth through sixth grade schools, through the junior high and the high schools. Every day, he would go to the school and coach ensembles. That was really an eye-opener for me. Prior to that, I had associated this music with older people, like my father. Seeing my peers do this struck a chord with me that this was something I could be a part of. I didn’t know when I was growing up that this was a very special program, that this wasn’t going on in other parts of the country. Now I realize that I was lucky.

Russell Malone: A lot of people don’t know this; but I did play tuba in the marching band in junior high school. I played guitar in the high school stage band. The musical program in Albany, Georgia was pretty weak. I so involved in church that I didn’t really have time to do anything else. I was playing a lot in these tent revivals. My pastor traveled with a tent, and I would be out on the road playing with him all the time. Also, there was a group at our church called The Gospel Crusaders that I played with. My modeled ourselves after the Dixie Hummingbirds.

Jazz Review: Who or what provides your present musical inspirations?

Benny Green: The people in my life. It’s more and more about playing who you are and how you feel, and less about having some stylistic agenda. And the great masters who I love - I am forever their fan - like Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan. Any time I need to get a serious attitude adjustment, I put on one of their records, and there are examples there for all time to keep us honest and keep us reaching; they’ll never be eclipsed.

Russell Malone: I agree with Benny on that. Every time I put on a record by Byrd, or by Lester Young, or by Fats Waller, I think that’s what this is about. There’s so much love and enjoyment in anything Fats Waller sang or played. Hearing these types of musicians is a source of my inspiration. Being able to play with Benny Green, or Louis Nash, or Mulgrew Miller, having spent time with Ray Brown, being in the company of Oscar Peterson, eating good food, being around nice people, living life, catching a nice movie, laughing, just enjoying life all of that inspires me. If you don’t do any of those things, you have nothing to play about, nothing whatsoever. Like Charlie Parker said, if you don’t live, it won’t come out of your horn.

Jazz Review: Your new recording, Live at the Bistro, is dedicated to the memory of Ray Brown. What role did he play in your lives?

Benny Green: The role is not in the past tense, it’s very much in the present. Ray had so much love of life and the music. He had so much integrity. He treated the music with so much dignity and respect. I spent four and a half years as a sideman with Ray Brown’s trio. Music was his life, more so than anyone I could mention. Music was his life, it was his religion, it was his joy. He really sprung to life when he was playing his bass. Russell will attest to this as well. To have experienced that, this man that had played for so many years and played with all the formative masters Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, all the pillars of this music. He actually knew him, ate with them, laughed with them, made recordings with them. He could still bring the same enthusiasm when he was working with me. I’ll never be on that level, and yet Ray just loved the music. He would give and he would receive. When I was playing with him, I was one with him and one with the music. He treated me, as he did Russell, as a son. Just to have that sense of family, it gives you something that you know you need to take care of for the rest of your life. People gave it to him, and he passed it on to us. We want to continue that, and be able to play music at the highest-level possible, to have a good time, to play for people. Another thing I experienced with Ray is that we played for all sorts of audiences. Sometimes we played for people who had never heard jazz before; and by the end of any performance I played with Ray, he would have made converts of everyone in the room. There’s a lot to draw from, and a lot of inspiration to receive, and I’m living it right here and now.

Russell Malone: I remember one time that Ray and I played a few years, and Benny Green taped it Benny Green taped everything. We went back to Benny’s room and put on the tape. That was one of the times when all the stars were in the right place, and everything sounded great. I’ll never forget, we played "Gone With the Wind", and it was right there. And I looked back at Ray, he had his eyes closed and he was giving detail and attention to every beat and every note it was spiritual. And then we put on the 1956 Stratford record; and he sounded just as strong that night as he sounded forty years ago. I remember the last conversation I had with Ray Brown was a few days before he died. We talked about some tour dates, and then, for some reason, I felt like opening up to him. I told him how much I loved him, what a joy it was playing with him. I told him, "You always play every note like your life depends on it." He let out a big laugh and said, "You make the old man feel good. See you next time." He did everything to the fullest. I really believe that when you play with guys like that, something is passed on to you. I think you can get to that level. Another time, I was with him in Europe, and I saw him in a wheelchair at an airport because he was having trouble with his knee. That freaked me out. But, when he got up on the bandstand that night, he was all about the music, and he eclipsed the other stuff. The last time we saw him alive, we were playing a sound check in Minnesota, and Benny wasn’t quite sure of all the chord changes in "Just Can’t See for Looking." Ray Brown walked him through it, note-by-note, chord by chord. Ray just had so much he wanted to share with young people who were serious about the music.

Jazz Review: Please talk about your musical collaboration on Jazz at the Bistro.

Russell Malone: One of the good things about making this recording is that I’ve been in so many situations, we both have made records and we’ve had to work within the limits of producers and other people who are involved who are not necessarily musicians. This recording was totally Benny and myself; no other people but us; and the producer was nice enough, or smart enough, to stay out of the way and just let us do what we do. They trusted us enough to do that. The Bistro was a fun place, it was a good vibe. It’s a small room, and it’s nice. The audience is right there, and you darn near hear them breathing.

Jazz Review: Live at the Bistro contains two original compositions. Benny, who is the "Quiet Girl" in your song?

Benny Green: She’ll remain anonymous.

Jazz Review: Russell, who told the "Hand-Told Stories" of your song?

Russell Malone: Tommy Flanagan. He was the jazz poet. That’s who I wrote that for.

Jazz Review: Do you prefer to do "live" recordings or studio work? What do you view as the advantages of each?

Benny Green I enjoy them both. It’s very special when you can have the interaction of an audience, they can inspire you to new heights if they’re not shy. We played a four-night engagement at The Bistro, and we recorded the last two nights. The first two nights, the people were being so responsive. On the third night, people were being very tame, and we said, "Hey, we’re making this record live for a reason, we want to include you." Then they came on board with us, and that’s a wonderful feeling, to be able to document the interaction with people. The magic can happen in a studio. Special things can happen in a recording studio, even though it may seem like a clinical environment from the outside looking in.

Russell Malone: There’s another kind of discipline in the studio, though. There’s something to be said for being precise, paying attention to the length of a tune and all that stuff. That has its place, too; but I prefer the live situation.

Jazz Review: Besides performing, what are your favorite things to do?

Russell Malone: I like to cook. I like to bake. You should try my banana pudding sometime, or my sweet potato pie. I’m a big movie buff, and I like to read. Right now I’m reading the autobiography of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.

Benny Green: I don’t really have a lot of hobbies. I listen to a lot of spoken word. I get books on tape. When I’m practicing sometimes I’ll listen to old Shakespeare plays or old radio shows like "The Shadow" or "Suspense", or poetry like Robert Frost or T.S. Elliot, or Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches. It’s very relevant to music.

Jazz Review: The musical genie just granted you three wishes. What do you want?

Russell Malone: Three more wishes.

Benny Green: If that were to happen, I’d want a lot of time to think it over; because there’re a lot of things I’d want to ask for, lots of musical things. I’d want to be careful what I’d ask for, that it wasn’t just about notes, that it was about life. I’d like to stall for time on that one.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Benny Green and Russell Malone
  • Subtitle: Keeping the Standard High
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