Courtesy of Russell Malone
FIRESIDE CHAT WITH RUSSELL MALONE
a member of Diana Krall's trio has been a double edged sword for Russell
Malone. Certainly, accompanying the songbird has brought the guitarist
recognition, but the flipside has been a tendency of both the public and
media to pigeonhole the man and his music. I wanted to set the record
straight, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
RUSSELL MALONE: I started in the church back in Georgia. I was born and
raised in Albany, Georgia. We would go to church every Sunday and we would
listen to the choir sing and the music was very nice. It was not that
sophisticated, but it was very moving. Then the guitar was added when
I was very much taken by the sound and the way the darn thing looked.
I had never seen an instrument like that before. My mother noticed that
I was interested in this instrument and so she bought me a guitar when
I was at the age of four. I got good enough to play in the church band
after a while. I would go in there every Sunday and listen to the guys.
The guy showed me how to tune it and showed me a couple of chords and
so I eventually got good enough to play in the church. The music that
I heard at the time, there wasn't a whole lot of jazz, but I heard a lot
of gospel music and I heard country and western music because you could
see a lot of these things on television. A lot of the performers like
Merle Travis, Glen Campbell, Chet Atkins, and then seeing B.B. King and
George Benson on television, that also turned me around too. It got me
into blues and jazz. So that is how I started playing the guitar.
FJ: Did you take formal lessons?
RUSSELL MALONE: No, I didn't take lessons. I'm not trained in the academic
sense. I think every time you put on a record, every time you go to hear
another musician, I think that is a form of studying.
FJ: So you are self-taught?
RUSSELL MALONE: Well, Fred, how do you define self-taught? I hear people
say that and I have yet to hear someone define that for me, self-taught.
FJ: Self-taught, teaching yourself without benefit of a formal tutor or
RUSSELL MALONE: I think everything that you pick up, you are being taught
because everybody has got something to teach. Everyone's got a different
lesson to teach.
FJ: Was there a pivotal moment in your life when you knew that this was
the path for Russell Malone?
RUSSELL MALONE: Oh, easy. Seeing George Benson perform on television at
the age of twelve with Benny Goodman.
FJ: What was it about Benson that triggered this dramatic reaction?
RUSSELL MALONE: Well, it was just the way, I had never heard anybody play
the guitar like that before. The look on his face and the love that he
seemed to have for the instrument, not just the instrument, but just for
playing music, that really did it for me. And then I went out and bought
records after that because I remember that I made a mental note of his
name. I went out and bought records of him, even at that age, at the age
of twelve, I had sense enough to know that he didn't start playing that
way by accident. I bought his records and read the liner notes and found
out that he was influenced by Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian and
so I went out and bought records by these guys and then I also came across
other names like Django Reinhardt and Barney Kessel and Kenny Burrell,
all those people. These are all guitar players and eventually, I got turned
onto guys like Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, all of these
people. That is how I got started in jazz. Seeing George was the thing
that triggered all these other things.
FJ: Let's touch on your time with Jimmy Smith.
RUSSELL MALONE: I played with him for two years. I met him in '87 and
joined his band in '88. Jimmy was playing at a place down in Atlanta and
I had been listening to Jimmy, he was one of the first guys that I listened
to when I started getting into jazz. After I finished playing my gig at
the Holiday Inn, I drove down to see him because that was like a big deal
down there. It was funny, Fred, Jimmy Smith, down in my hometown of Albany,
Georgia, you couldn't find a whole lot of jazz records, but there were
certain things, certain records you could always find. You could always
find a Jimmy Smith record. You could always find Wes. You could always
find Grover Washington. They were like staples. They were like necessary
salt and sugar in your house. I drove down to the club where he was playing.
This was when I was living in Atlanta at the time and Jimmy was everything
that I expected and more. Then I met him that night and I got a chance
to sit in with him. It was great. He kicked my behind. It was such a great
experience because I had never been on the bandstand with a musician of
that caliber before. Afterwards, I got a chance to hang out with him in
his room. We hung out until like six in the morning and I just listened
to him talk about his life. He talked about Wes Montgomery. He talked
about Art Tatum. He talked about Bud Powell and so it was great. I was
down there every night listening to him play. We exchanged numbers and
I would call him up every now and then and check up on him, just to be
in contact with him. And then I eventually got hired to play with him
and I stayed there for two years.
FJ: What did you take away from your time with Jimmy Smith?
RUSSELL MALONE: Honesty was the thing. I remember one of the first gigs
that I had done with him, on one of the first gigs, I came there playing
all of my Kenny Burrell licks and my Wes Montgomery licks because I felt
I needed to do that in order to make the music happen, so he pulled me
to the side and said, "Hey, you don't have to do that. I didn't hire any
of those guys. I hired you. I didn't hire George. I didn't hire Kenny
Burrell and Wes Montgomery has been dead for a long time. I want you to
play like yourself. Be honest." It took a while for that to sink in Fred,
but it did. It was one of the most important things I got from him. He
just played, every time he sat at that organ, he always played his heart
out, whether there were three hundred people in the club or ten people
in the club, he always gave a hundred percent.
FJ: You are familiar to much of mainstream America through your work as
part of Diana Krall's trio. What are the subtle differences between working
with a vocalist and that of an instrumentalist?
RUSSELL MALONE: Well, that's a very good question. I think whatever situation
you're in, be it with an instrumentalist or vocalist, I think you have
to think musically, think about the music because that is what's first.
A lot of people don't know how to play with a singer because their egos
won't allow them to surrender to the music. For example, I have seen guitar
players try to accompany a singer and they are so busy trying to get their
own thing on, in other words, they won't listen and they throw these different
fancy harmonic substitutions in there and a lot of the stuff doesn't really
make any sense. They are not listening to the lyric and I think you really
have to listen. You really have to pay attention and be able to serve
the music. I think the same principle applies to instrumentalists also
because you have to be able to trust each other. When you are playing
with people that you trust and you have that element of trust there. You
don't have to try to make anything happen. Everything will happen on the
song. You just have to trust and listen and serve the music.
FJ: Was it ever a concern of yours that your work with Diana Krall would
limit your viability as a jazz musician because of her significant commercial
RUSSELL MALONE: One of the reasons why I left that band was because people
were starting to type-cast me as that kind of player. In fact, when we
went into the studio to do this record, there were some people who were
expecting me to play on this latest record the way I played with Diana
Krall and that was just not going to happen because what I did with that
band is a separate thing from what I play when I am with my own band and
so I wasn't going to do that.
FJ: What is the difference between your initial release on GRP, Sweet
Georgia Peach and your latest Verve recording, Look Who's Here?
RUSSELL MALONE: Well, that record (Sweet Georgia Peach) was OK. I had
a great rhythm section on that record, Ron Carter, Kenny Barron, and Lewis
Nash. It was some good music, but I like this record (Look Who's Here)
better. Look Who's Here has my working band on it.
FJ: What are the benefits of making a recording with a working band?
RUSSELL MALONE: When you go into the studio with a group of guys that
you've been on the road with, hanging out playing, breaking bread together,
all of that has an effect on how the music comes across in the studio.
I was more comfortable, not that I was not comfortable with the guys on
the other record, but we hadn't been on the road. I was not able to go
on the road with Ron Carter and those guys. First of all, they are ridiculous
expensive and they are busy doing other things. But I think this record
has more of a rambunctiousness to it. There is a maturity there, but at
the same time, you can feel a youthful exuberance on this record. I'm
not an old man yet and I don't think it should be expected of me to play
like I am sixty years old. I'm still a young man and still full of fire.
FJ: But that is an expectations that the media often places upon young
players, that they play as if they are sixty years of age.
RUSSELL MALONE: Oh, I think there is a lot of pressure that is put upon
musicians to develop fast. Now a days, I hear a lot of critics who, especially
here in New York, they put a whole lot of emphasis on musicians to be
new or to different, but what ends up happening is that a lot of these
musicians don't end up studying the music. You have to really study this
music, Fred and put the time in and develop. That was another one of those
things that I got from Jimmy Smith, the importance of studying the history
of it, learning the tunes. I think once you do that, I think your voice
will develop. It will develop and it becomes more personal.
FJ: Tour plans?
RUSSELL MALONE: Yeah, in fact, I am getting ready to go to Europe next
month with my working band. We just finished up at the Blue Note last
night. It was a great gig and a great run.
FJ: When are you heading back into the studio?
RUSSELL MALONE: I intent to go back in there with this band, but we haven't
set a date yet. I think it would be a shame not to document the growth
of this band. Now a days, people are under the false impression that you
get a bunch of all-stars together and that is supposed to sell a record.
I think it is very important for working bands to make recordings. It
is very important to do that.
FJ: Apart from the music, what do you enjoy doing when you have down time?
RUSSELL MALONE: I like to take vacations. I just took a trip to Hawaii
back in March. I stayed there for three weeks and it was very nice to
just get away from everything and recharge my battery. The older I get,
the more I am interested in exploring other aspects of life. I will always
be interested in music, but I think that sometimes you just have to get
away from it and just take a walk or read a book. Experience life. Stop
and smell the roses. If you don't do that then you have nothing to play
FJ: Will there come a period when you will step back from the spotlight
and take a sabbatical?
RUSSELL MALONE: I don't know. I think I will always be involved with music.
Who knows, Fred? Sonny Rollins laid off. Miles laid off. All these guys
took time off to reflect and reevaluate some things and reinvent themselves,
so maybe so. I will always love music. I always keep a guitar close by.
Some days will go by where I don't even pick up the guitar sometimes,
but there is always one within arms' reach and there is always music on
in the house. I have to practice. If you don't pick it up, after a while,
for me, my fingers will get stiff. I have to pick it up at least once
a day. Sometimes it is good to get away from it for a little while and
just reflect upon other things.
Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and believes in Santa Claus,
but not the Easter Bunny. Comments? Email