Russell Malone: Love Looks Good on You

In his 11th album as a leader and his first for HighNote, Russell Malone demonstrates the clear, thoughtful tone, tasty phrase-making and rhythmic mastery that have made him one of today’s finest exponents of the mainstream jazz guitar tradition of Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and George Benson, his early idol.

Malone’s years as a sideman-supporting Jimmy Smith, Harry Connick Jr., Ray Brown, Diana Krall, Sonny Rollins and Dianne Reeves, among others-helped him to become a sensitive leader, a lyrical, sometimes dazzling soloist and, not incidentally, one of the most effective rhythm guitarists since Freddie Green. He puts all that experience to good use here in a forward-looking take on a backward-looking repertoire. His playing is sometimes bluesy, sometimes modern and athletic, but always anchored in good taste and a sense of decorum. An adroit quartet of pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Willie Jones III provides pitch-perfect support.

Malone loves a good melody, saying, in the liner notes, “I prefer to play songs that stick in my head and in the listener’s head.” The album is like a curated collection of overlooked tunes, all of which have special meaning to Malone, starting with “Soul Leo,” a hard-boppish number by his late friend and bandmate (with Ron Carter’s Golden Striker Trio) Mulgrew Miller. Later he resurrects rarities like “Ellie’s Love Theme” from Isaac Hayes’ score for Shaft; a terrific bit of Basie-ana called “The Elder,” written by Thad Jones; and, most strikingly, a catchy piece of ’60s nostalgia called, improbably, “Your Zowie Face,” from the score of the spy spoof In Like Flint (music by Hollywood veteran Jerry Goldsmith).

The title ballad (the sole Malone original here) and, later, a solo version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” are tender and poignant. “Suite Sioux,” a driving, urgent Freddie Hubbard tune, is a fitting closer that gives the band ample opportunities to flex its muscles, including outstanding solos by Malone, a fiery Germanson and an explosive Jones.