Surrounded by five budding ballerinas, guitarist Russell Malone is pictured on the cover of his latest recording at a performing arts academy in New Jersey. If, for some strange reason, the photo doesn’t produce a smile, chances are the album will, with its artful blend of blues, swing, soul and funk.
For a few prime examples of Malone’s underrated artistry, each a quartet performance featuring pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Willie Jones III, check out three of the original compositions gathered here. “The Ballad of Hank Crawford” instantly evokes, among other things, the saxophonist’s Southern affinities and, by extension, Ray Charles’ chart-topping Nashville alliances. Likewise, “Pocket Watch,” inspired by Ray Brown, recalls the renowned bassist’s engaging, unhurried pulse. “Leave It to Lonnie,” on the other hand, provides a sharply percussive contrast. It finds Malone and company at their kinetic best, driven by a bass-ostinato-triggered arrangement that’s peppered with rhythmic displacements, jabbing funk chords, call-and-response riffs and sliding double stops.