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Russell Malone: A Walking, Comping Soloing Encyclopedia

Guitarist shares thoughts on jazz guitar in listening session

Russell Malone TD Toronto Jazz Festival 2008

A player of extraordinary facility with a warm tone and engaging presence, guitarist Russell Malone broke onto the scene in the late 1980s with organ legend Jimmy Smith and went on to high-profile gigs with Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Krall in the 1990s. He began recording as a leader with his self-titled debut on Columbia in 1992, and subsequently released albums on Impulse, Verve and Telarc before hooking up with MaxJazz for 2004’s Playground. His most recent MaxJazz release, last year’s Triple Play, is a trio outing featuring bassist David Wong and drummer Montez Coleman.

The guitarist toured throughout 2010 as a member of Sonny Rollins’ band, and recently has been working in a trio featuring pianist Mulgrew Miller and bassist Ron Carter. An astute listener and scholar of the music, Malone, 47, showed an uncanny ability to identify the following guitarists in just a few notes.

1. Lenny Breau

“It Could Happen to You” (from The Hallmark Sessions, Art of Life). Breau, guitar; Rick Danko, acoustic bass; Levon Helm, drums. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: [during guitar intro] That’s Lenny Breau. I had to keep listening, but it’s the touch that gave it away. There’s a certain way in which he strummed the chords; it’s a rather distinctive touch. At first it threw me because I thought he was playing with a pick, but as soon as he started with the arpeggios and the tremolo, that’s what gave it away. Lenny has great time and a great feel. He was definitely influenced by Chet Atkins, but he took it somewhere else and made his own thing that is very unique, very original and very personal.

AFTER: You could tell he was young here. As he got older I think his note choices got better, and he wasn’t yet playing his signature seven-string guitar [with high-A string] on this recording. But it’s still beautiful, though. He’s in his 20s here [Ed. note: Breau was born Aug. 5, 1941]. There are a lot of guys in their 20s who don’t play with this type of depth, and I like the fact that he didn’t embellish the melody too much. A lot of guys don’t seem to want to put emphasis on that. Lenny’s definitely a very special player. Great musician, great guitarist. Such a sensitive player. He was one of the best.

2. Tal Farlow

“I Love You” (from The Swinging Guitar of Tal Farlow, Verve). Farlow, guitar; Eddie Costa, piano; Vinnie Burke, bass. Recorded in 1956.

BEFORE: [only a few notes into the head] Tal Farlow! That’s Vinnie Burke on bass with Eddie Costa on piano? Yeah, I have this record. I got to play with Tal once, and I also got to play with Vinnie Burke back in the mid-’90s at a Barnes & Noble in New Jersey. Tal has such a great sound, man. And those lines! Where’d he come up with that? And he had a way of manipulating chords that was very unique and personal too.

I met Tal Farlow back in 1990, when I was up in Toronto with Harry Connick Jr. and Tal was playing at a place called the Top o’ the Senator with the bassist Pat Collins. We got a chance to talk and he gave me his phone number. When I moved to New Jersey I called him and he told me that he was playing at this place called Trumpets in Montclair. So I went out to see him and I got to hang out and jam with him. Later, we played again together down in South Carolina. In fact, I have this black-and-white video of me and Tal playing in his hotel room with Bucky Pizzarelli and Hank Garland.

Tal was one of the most original guitar players to come out of the Charlie Christian school. I got into jazz guitar through listening to George Benson records when I was 12, and when I read the liner notes on those records, Tal Farlow’s name would invariably pop up. So I started buying records by Tal. The first one I bought by him was a two-record set called Guitar Player, and that’s how I became hip to him.

One of the things that I found appealing about Tal’s playing was that drive. A lot of those old guys had that drive in their playing: Barney Kessel had it, Tal had it, Charlie Christian had it. There’s always excitement in their playing. The other thing about Tal was that he was one of the nicest gentlemen I’ve ever met in my life. Such a sweet disposition. He had this humongous talent and yet he was a very humble cat. This guy was touched by something. I don’t want to use the word divine, but you get my drift. I love Tal, and miss him.

3. George Benson

“So What” (from California Concert: The Hollywood Palladium, CTI/Sony). Benson, guitar; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Stanley Turrentine, tenor saxophone; Hubert Laws, flute; Ron Carter, bass; Billy Cobham, drums. Recorded in 1972.

BEFORE: [almost immediately] That’s George Benson. That’s too easy. That’s from the new CTI thing they just [reissued]. I haven’t heard this but I can just tell it’s George. And I know that’s Ron Carter on bass. Nobody sounds like that. And it’s Billy Cobham on drums. I mean, what can you say about George that hasn’t already been said? He’s one of the greatest guitar players to ever have picked up the instrument. He’s another one of those guys who’s got drive in his playing.

For me, he’s got a lot in common with guys like Erroll Garner, Cannonball Adderley and Stanley Turrentine, and by that I mean this: When I first got into jazz music there were certain players that I listened to over and over again to acquire a taste for them. But when I heard George and those other players I mentioned, I didn’t have to acquire a taste, I got it immediately. Just like eating ice cream for the first time, you know you like it right away-because it’s good! It made that immediate connection for me. And George can still play. The old man has not lost anything.

I first met George maybe 20 years ago here in New York when I was playing with Jimmy Smith. There used to be a club in the Edison Hotel called Indigo Blues, and when George came into the club one night, man, I started shaking in my boots. “There he is! Right there! My idol!” So Jimmy Smith featured me on a tune, but they ended up leaving the bandstand and leaving me up there by myself, so I had to play solo guitar. I remember I played “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” a ballad that I felt pretty comfortable with. After it was over, Jimmy came back up to the bandstand and called George Benson up to play. George played my guitar and it was beautiful.

After the gig was over, George and I sat down and talked and he invited me to come out to his house the next day. So I went out there and stayed for a couple of hours, and George was so gracious, very complimentary. He told me he was proud of me and said, “You’re doing something really beautiful, keep it up.” He also told me he had played with Jimmy Smith, and added, “You’re in the right place.”

4. Mary Halvorson Quintet

“Saturn Sings (No. 18)” (from Saturn Sings, Firehouse 12). Halvorson, guitar; Jonathan Finlayson, trumpet; Jon Irabagon, alto saxophone; John Hébert, bass; Ches Smith, drums. Recorded in 2009.

BEFORE: Is this a female guitarist? Mary Halvorson. I’ve seen her play. I kind of dig her, man. I went to go see her at a place called The Stone [in Manhattan] a couple of years ago, and it was a band with Chris Cheek on sax and a couple of other musicians. I’ll tell you, man, I know a lot of people who may not like this kind of music-free music or avant-garde or whatever you want to call it. But this stuff is hard to play. First of all, they’re not up there just playing a bunch of random stuff. It’s composed and these guys are good musicians who can read well. I know a lot of guys who, if you take them out of their comfort zone and put them in a situation where they have to play this kind of music, it probably wouldn’t come off as well. But I respect the musicianship here and I respect the music. This is good. She’s a good musician and she’s sincere. It’s just another way to hear. I mean, if everybody’s playing the same way and thinking the same way, then nobody’s really thinking.

AFTER: I’ve seen clips of her playing with this band on YouTube. I got to meet her. She’s a very nice young lady and very serious about the music. And the reason I was able to identify her was, once again, the sound. It was the way she plays, the way she strikes the guitar, the touch. When I saw her at The Stone she was playing an old Guild Artist Award and getting a really clean sound out of it. I’m not a purist by any means, but I like to hear the natural sound of the guitar, and that was one of the things that appealed to me about her playing. She had a really pure sound, which I dug. I think she’s cool.

5. Johnny Smith

“Where or When” (from Moonlight in Vermont, Roulette). Smith, guitar; Stan Getz, tenor saxophone; Sanford Gold, piano; Eddie Safranski, bass; Don Lamond, drums. Recorded in 1952.

BEFORE: [within two notes] It’s Johnny Smith. Come on, man-that’s too easy! Now, this solo is one of the most interesting Johnny Smith solos ever. It’s real angular and sounds like something Lockjaw Davis, Don Byas, Lucky Thompson and other horn players from that generation would play-those wide intervals between the lines. This is a bad-ass solo here. You could take this solo and put it on any instrument and it will sound right. There are no predictable guitar patterns in that solo. Sometimes you hear guitar players and they’ll play patterns, and that’s OK. But that solo is just pure music, man. You could transcribe it on piano, vibes, trumpet, whatever, and it sounds logical.

6. Pat Martino

“Israfel” (from Baiyina: The Clear Evidence, Prestige). Martino, guitar; Bobby Rose, guitar; Gregory Herbert, alto saxophone, flute; Richard Davis, bass; Charlie Persip, drums; Reggie Ferguson, tabla; Balakrishna, tambura. Recorded in 1968.

BEFORE: [initially seems thrown by the opening tambura drone] Oh, that’s Pat Martino. Is that from Baiyina? Yeah. He’s another one of those guys. Once again, the sound and the touch. Whew! Did he overdub this?

No, that’s Bobby Rose playing those tight unisons with Pat.

Oh, I’m familiar with that name. He’s on that record The Visit. Jesus Christ, man! Pat Martino … I mean, that sound! I always felt that your sound on the guitar, on any instrument, is like your voice. It’s the first thing people hear. That’s what makes them want to hear what you have to say, or in this instance, what you have to play. Orson Welles, JFK, Malcolm X, Dr. King-these guys had beautiful speaking voices. And when they spoke you heard the sound, and even before you started to pay attention to what they’re saying, you heard that sound. And because the sound is so good, it made you want to listen. Same thing applies to Pat. Beautiful sound and crazy articulation. You know, Johnny Smith was a huge influence on Pat, for that whole articulation thing. Just impeccably clean playing and such great lines.

I have this record. It’s not one of my favorite Pat Martino records. It doesn’t rank up there with Consciousness, Live! or Exit, for me. But the playing on this is amazing. It’s still good because it’s Pat, and he’s playing his behind off like he always does. I got to play with Pat a few times, and I can’t tell you how scary it was to be on the bandstand with him, man. It’s like going to the zoo and seeing a lion in a cage. You have one perception of the lion when you’re on the other side of the bars. But imagine being in the cage with the lion: It looks a little bigger, you can hear it breathing and it can rip you open at any second. That’s the way it felt standing next to Pat onstage.

7. John Scofield

“I Want to Talk About You” (from A Moment’s Peace, Emarcy). John Scofield, guitar; Larry Goldings, piano; Scott Colley, bass; Brian Blade, drums. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: This sounds familiar. Is that John McLaughlin? I know the song, “I Want to Talk About You.” Is it Sonny Greenwich? No? You got me here. Let me keep listening. I like this guy, though. OK, it’s Sco. You know what gave it away? When he started to pick toward the bridge and he started to slur on those bends. That’s definitely John Scofield, another unique individual. It threw me in the beginning, though. This is fantastic.

Nobody else sounds like that. One of the things I’ve always liked about him is he’s not afraid to bend a note. I like guys who bend notes, man; nothing wrong with bending a note. It’s a guitar, you know? I think that’s the thing that made George Benson so appealing to a lot of players, because he had all of that facility but then he’d bend a note and convey all that expression.

8. Bill Frisell

“Benny’s Bugle” (from Beautiful Dreamers, Savoy Jazz). Frisell, guitar; Eyvind Kang, viola; Rudy Royston, drums. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: That’s “Benny’s Bugle.” This is a new recording, right? OK, that’s Bill Frisell. I heard them play this at the Village Vanguard last week: Bill with Rudy Royston on drums and Eyvind Kang on viola. Great band. Oh, man, that’s a transcription of Charlie Christian’s original solo on this tune with Benny Goodman, and he nailed it, man. This stuff is not easy to play, but they managed to get the notes and somehow managed to get the feeling too. [during a brief bit of edgy comping by Frisell] Yeah! A little bit of dissonance never hurt anybody. This is good, and it swings! It’s right in the pocket. The groove is really strong even though there’s no bass. They really put a lot of emphasis on the time, and the groove was so strong that it took me a while to catch on that there wasn’t a bass playing walking bass.

Bill Frisell is a great musician. I got to spend some time with him two or three years ago when we went out on the road to play some duo concerts. The man loves music, and he loves the guitar. We had so much fun playing guitar together and just talking about the guitar. And we played a lot of interesting tunes together-Stephen Foster tunes, Hank Williams tunes, Monk tunes. He’s really into Monk; that’s one thing we both had in common. And we played some Charlie Christian tunes, too.

9. Kurt Rosenwinkel Standards Trio

“Fall” (from Reflections, Word of Mouth). Rosenwinkel, guitar; Eric Revis, bass; Eric Harland, drums. Recorded in 2009.

BEFORE: That’s the Wayne Shorter tune “Fall.” It’s a different arrangement. This is a new recording? Young player? It’s not Mike Moreno, is it? The reason why I said Mike Moreno is because of the sound-a lot of reverb on the guitar. I don’t know if I like this backbeat on it. Let me keep listening. Is he going to blow on this? Does he improvise, or does he just play melody? Now it’s starting to sound like Kurt. Yeah, it’s Kurt Rosenwinkel.

Kurt is another one of my favorite players. He’s very musical. I’m not crazy about this arrangement with the backbeat on this tune, but Kurt always plays great. He plays great lines, and I like the space that he uses in his solos. Nothing ever sounds cluttered. It makes sense that I said Mike Moreno first, because I know that Kurt is a big influence on him. As far as this tune, it’s a nice idea, but for me it doesn’t really come off as strongly as other things I’ve heard Kurt play.

10. Julian Lage

“Autumn Leaves” (from Gladwell, Emarcy). Lage, guitar. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: This guy’s good. OK, is it Biréli Lagrène? He’s good, whoever he is. I like that snap that he gets in his attack. Boy, this guy’s swinging. Is it an older guy? This is Julian? Holy shit! I’ve known Julian since he was 12, man. I never heard him play with this kind of aggressiveness before. Wow!

AFTER: That really threw me. Every time I’ve heard him it was always musical but a little more laidback, a little more subdued. I never heard him play with that kind of attack and fire before. That’s what threw me. He’s good, man; he’s a great player. Good sound, nice and pure. Julian sat in with me at the San Francisco Jazz Festival years ago. He played a couple of tunes with us. He could swing then but I was a little worried when I started listening to some of his other records, because it seemed to me that somebody had gotten inside his head and told him to get away from swinging. Somebody told him, “Don’t do that!” Because that does happen, and I know this for a fact. Some people are told not to swing, to play a certain way. So I was a little worried about him at first. But it’s nice to hear him swinging like that. I’m glad you played that. He sounds great, man.

11. Larry Coryell/Kenny Drew Jr.

“Moanin'” (from Duality, Random Act). Coryell, guitar; Drew, piano. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: Just guitar and piano, right? [during guitar solo] That’s Larry Coryell. Once again, the sound and the touch are instantly identifiable. The thing that gave it away about Larry is that he’s got that snappy attack, and there’s a bit of a twang in it, too. And he brings his background in rock to his jazz playing. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a unique interpretation. It doesn’t sound like Wes; it doesn’t sound like George; it doesn’t sound like anybody but Larry Coryell. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

I played alongside Larry in the Five Guitars Play Mingus band that had a regular Monday night residency at the old Iridium. He played a couple of gigs with us, and the thing I liked about Larry was his devil-may-care attitude. He always went for stuff, and he was funny, man. There were a couple of times when he would try to execute an idea, and if it didn’t come off the way he wanted it to, he would yell, “Fuck!” Used to crack me up, man. Every night when he’d play a solo I’d be hoping that he’d make a mistake just so he could yell that out and then I’d get a big chuckle.

Originally Published