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Russell Malone: Playground

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Guitarist Malone blends his beautifully warm tone, clean articulation and considerable chops into the fabric of accessible, melodic and swinging originals along with some well-chosen standards on the self-produced Playground, his MaxJazz debut. With a band of talented young upstarts like pianist Martin Bejerano, bassist Tassili Bond and drummer E.J. Strickland, along with special guests Joe Locke on vibes and Gary Bartz on alto sax on one track apiece, Malone showcases his tasteful six-string virtuosity while taking a few more risks than he usually does.

“Blues for Mulgrew,” an edgy, atypical number for Malone, has him engaging in some off-kilter, uncharacteristically “out” cat-and-mouse with pianist Bejerano. The guitarist plays it more in the free-wheeling spirit of six-string renegade Dom Minasi here rather than reflecting his usual influences of Wes Montgomery and George Benson (which he flaunts to good effect on “Invisible Colors” and the breezy opener “You Should Know Better”). It’s a different, adventurous approach for a guitarist so accomplished and so comfortable swinging that he has nothing more to prove in that bag.

An uncommonly sensitive interpreter of ballads, Malone turns in wonderfully unhurried performances on Billy Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For” and on two gorgeous, unaccompanied pieces: the Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern gem “Remind Me,” which he imbues with bell-like, Lenny Breau-style harmonics on the melody, and the melancholy Carole King-penned hit for James Taylor, “You’ve Got a Friend.” On the other side of the dynamic coin is the frantic “Sugar Buzz” featuring speedsters Locke and Malone in an all-out sprint to the finish line. The title track is an easygoing original that straddles Methenyland and smooth jazz, and the most arresting track, a modal excursion entitled “Mandela,” takes its time in building to some compelling peaks with Bartz and Malone leading the blues-drenched charge.

The only miscue on Playground is a crazy-quilt arrangement of the schmaltzy Karen and Richard Carpenter tune “We’ve Only Just Begun,” which incorporates some grating hard-rock elements upfront and at the tag with bits of the Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up And Away” strewn in between for good measure. A bonus CD-ROM track, “Mugshot,” allows consumers to view Malone and company in performance at the New York City nightclub Smoke. Frankly, I could’ve used more of that and a lot less of the Carpenters.