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Russell Malone: Heartstrings

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In ways reminiscent of some of Wes Montgomery’s recordings for the same label over 30 years ago, this disc has all the attributes of a commercial jazz product aimed at a broad audience-from its moody cover photo to its title to the choice of material to the lush string arrangements by Johnny Mandel, Dori Caymmi and Alan Broadbent. But how slick is it really? While Malone, an exceptional guitarist capable of playing with the best of ’em, surrounds himself here with fine musicians-bassist Christian McBride, pianist Kenny Barron and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts-most of the crayon work stays neatly within in the lines. Still, the material is tastefully, often elegantly, treated, and there’s an abundance of fine playing.

The title track, a sultry, subtly grooving number by Milt Jackson, sets the program’s overall tone, and Malone’s bluesy, spaciously laid-back guitar work, with its singing Grant Green-esque vibrato, is neatly framed by background string swells. As expected, there’s an abundance of ballads; one such example is “Handful Of Stars,” which casually strolls along and features a plaintively melodic guitar solo that’s periodically accented by syrupy strings. On two numbers-“You Needed Me” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”-Malone essentially goes it alone. And while both performances reflect a fair share of saccharine, each is beautifully conceived and harmonized.

Not a blowing session by any stretch of the imagination, this project still has some nice playing, and is a fine, highly polished effort despite the candlelight/wine/bearskin rug kind of ambience.

Originally Published