Russell Malone has been turning the heads of jazz lovers for over a decade with his versatile guitar playing. Frequently named in lists and polls of players deserving wider recognition, he may finally get his due with his new Verve release Heartstrings, his sixth as a bandleader. The recording notably features the guitarist performing in front of both gorgeous string sections and a stellar rhythm section featuring Kenny Baron on piano, Christian McBride on bass and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums. As Malone put it, "What’s there to say about them that hasn’t already been said? They’re masters. Period!"
Malone seems comfortable in a variety of settings, a master of his instrument that is equally at home playing spirituals, standards and contemporary pop and rock. "I like playing music," he said. "It’s all just music. I don’t look down on any type of music or different types of musicians. And, I don’t look down on musicians who play different types of music. Good music is good music, and good musicianship is good musicianship." With that in mind, here’s more of what Russell Malone had to say one afternoon on the phone from his home in New Jersey.
Jazz Review: I saw you a few years ago at the University of Idaho. You did a workshop along with Diana Krall and Ben Wolfe in front of a lot of kids there, and I thought you had a great way of relating to them. Do you enjoy doing music education?
Russell Malone: "I love doing workshops. It gives the kids a chance to see professional musicians at work and be able to ask them questions. Growing up in Georgia, I didn’t get the chance to see too many musicians. I mostly learned by listening to records until I moved to Atlanta and got to see some of the jazz festivals there. But, there’s no substitute for seeing musicians and being able to ask them questions about what they are doing. And, for me, I was fortunate to be able to get to know some musicians away from the classroom, and do a lot of casual learning from them about the way they handle things in music and in life."
Jazz Review: Who are some of your influences on the guitar?
Russell Malone: "Oh God, how much time do you have? (laughs) Well, the first guy that really caught my ear was B.B King. He was the first guitar player that really got my attention. Then George Benson, Wes [Montgomery], of course, Kenny Burrell, Chet Atkins, Hank Garland, Johnny Smith, Jim Hall, Pat Martino...all the guys who play guitar in jazz. All the players! John Collins, make sure you mention him. Actually, the first guitar solo I ever learned note for note was by a guy named Howard Carroll, with a band called the Dixie Hummingbirds on a song called "Standing by the Bedside of my Neighbor."
Jazz Review: When you play the blues, more than a lot of other players in jazz, it seems like you’re not afraid to get down and dirty with them.
Russell Malone: "Well, I respect the idiom. I have a lot of respect for the music. To me, Robert Johnson is just as important as Charlie Christian. Different, but equally important."
Jazz Review: What kind of music are you listening to now?
Russell Malone: "Right now? Well, to be honest, I just got off of the road, so I haven’t really been listening to anything. Now I’m just relaxing--sometimes you just need to relax. Let’s see though. This morning I put on some Tadd Dameron & Fats Navarro, and then I listened to a Peggy Lee record called Moments Like This that has some really good songs on it.
Jazz Review: Your current record features a string section. How did that come about?
Russell Malone: "It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. Tommy LiPuma was very excited about it because it was the type of record that he wanted me to do when he signed me to Verve. But, I wasn’t ready to do it then. It wasn’t like I was I under pressure from the record company to do it, though. Nobody twisted my arm. I always wanted to record with strings."
Jazz Review: Do you have any plans to try and recreate this live on stage?
Russell Malone: "I’d like to do that, in fact there’s been some discussion about that. I don’t want to say too much about that right now, I don’t want to jinx it. I’ll keep you posted."
Jazz Review: Tell me about your regular group.
Russell Malone: "There’s Richard Johnson on piano, Richie Goods on bass, and E.J Strickland on drums. They’re three of the best musicians in New York City, three great young players."
Jazz Review: How long has you’ve been playing together?
Russell Malone: "Richie has been playing in my band for three years. As a group, we’ve been playing together for about a year. E.J, the drummer, has been with me for a year and two months."
Jazz Review: What’s a typical set for your band?
Russell Malone: "That’s a hard question. There really isn’t one. We just play music. You never know what’s going to come up. We just close our eyes and prey to our Creator and hope that it’s going to work out."
Jazz Review: You’ve worked with some great musicians over the years. What are some of the things that you’ve learned working with them?
Russell Malone: "There’s a lot of guys that I’ve learned some things from. Freddy Cole opened me up as far as listening to singers and to phrasing, paying attention to the lyrics and to the story of the song. Jimmy Smith taught me not to be afraid to play like myself, to listen to the voice that is mine and speak with that voice."
Jazz Review: You seem to like to finish your records with a solo arrangement of a spiritual. So then, I’d like to finish this interview by asking you what the reasoning is behind that.
Russell Malone: "They’re just nice tunes, that’s all. I’m not trying to convert anybody. You don’t need to read anything into that. I picked them because they’re good vehicles to express myself. It’s just good music."
Jazz Review: Russell Malone, thank you for your time.
Russell Malone: "Thank you."