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Catching Up With Russell Malone

The guitarist discusses his 30-year career, love of country music and more

Russell Malone performs in Ron Carter's Great Big Band at the 2016 Detroit Jazz Festival
Russell Malone performs in Ron Carter's Great Big Band at the 2016 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo by Marek Lazarski)
Russell Malone
Russell Malone performs in Ron Carter’s Great Big Band at the 2016 Detroit Jazz Festival (photo by Marek Lazarski)

Russell Malone may be a jazz-guitar traditionalist in the spirit of Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell and late Jim Hall, but he’s no purist. The first tipoff is when he picks me up at the train station in Jersey City, a 10-minute drive from the handsome four-story row house he calls home. The car stereo in his immaculate, late-model black Volvo S80 is set to a SiriusXM station, but not a jazz one. It’s vintage soul, and the first song that hits me is Percy Sledge’s recording of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which, coincidentally, Malone covers in a mellow-toned solo on his new album, All About Melody (HighNote).

“What other kinds of music do you listen to?” he asks. He is delighted when I mention various genres, including country. “You like country, too? I love country music,” says the Georgia-born musician, mentioning Glen Campbell (an early guitar hero), Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel and Willie Nelson. He ticks off other favorite genres, mentioning R&B, blues, classical and even smooth jazz, which he thinks gets a bad rap from critics. “I was never one of those musicians who looked down my nose at other types of music, or at musicians who play them,” he says. “I know a lot of jazz musicians who do that. But with a lot of them, if you take them out of the jazz context and put them in a situation where they have to play more simply, their egos and their virtuosity won’t allow them to do that. I was never one of those musicians. … I learned at an early age that Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Glen Campbell-they’re just as important as Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery or any of these jazz players.”

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