Courtesy of Russell Malone

Verve Records


Being 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 education.

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 success?

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 about.

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 Fred.