Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Russell Malone has proven time and again how the guitar can enlarge the harmonic palette of an ensemble. As a leader and in his work with singers such as Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Krall, Malone has fashioned an original style which draws on resources from rhythm and blues and country to enrich his approach to jazz.
Russell Malone was born on November 8,1963 in Albany, Georgia. Growing up in a devoutly religious home, Malone’s first taste of music was at church. At the age of four, Russell received his first instrument, a green four string guitar-like toy that was a present from his mother. Even at that young age, he was beginning to show an interest and proficiency in music.
Malone was first introduced to the blues after seeing legendary guitarist B.B. King perform the song “How Blue Can You Get” on an episode of the 1970s sitcom “Sanford and Son.” Upon discovering the blues, Russell began to actively search out other forms of music that he could enjoy. Russell found inspiration in several other types of music including jazz and country. He soon began to admire the talents of an array of guitarists including Johnny Cash and Wes Montgomery.
At the age of twelve, Malone saw guitarist George Benson perform with bandleader Benny Goodman on the PBS program Soundstage.Russell was riveted by Benson’s style, and started to study the guitar more seriously. Around this time, he began to perform in church services, where he gained experience playing in front of an audience.
Self-taught, Malone tightened his skills and technique by listening and playing along to records by Montgomery and guitarist Charlie Christian. Throughout the early to mid 1980s, Russell performed with rhythm and blues, gospel and popular music ensembles.
In May of 1986, Malone met organist Jimmy Smith at the Pascal’s L’Carousel club in Atlanta, Georgia. At this first encounter, Russell was invited to sit in with Smith’s band, where Smith proceeded to haze the young guitarist by playing strange chords to throw him off. Nevertheless, Jimmy later asked Malone to join his group.
In 1989, Russell left Smith’s group in order to join the orchestra of Harry Connick Jr. Russell stayed with the orchestra from 1990 until 1994 where during those years he also received the opportunity to perform with pianist Mulgrew Miller, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and organist Jack McDuff amongst others.
Upon hearing Malone perform with the Connick orchestra, producer Tommy Mottola brought him to the attention of Columbia Records who signed him to a record contract.
On August 19, 1991, Malone began the sessions that would yield his self-titled debut album.
The album Russell Malone was released in 1992, and featured such standards such as When I Take My Sugar to Tea” and “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me,” the latter a duet with Connick. The album featured the talents of pianist Donald Brown, bassists Milt Hinton and Robert Hurst and drummers Yoron Israel and Shannon Powell.
This first album was met with critical acclaim and in the following year, Malone released his second album, Black Butterfly. Russell recorded the album from March through April of 1993 with pianist Gary Motley, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, bassist Paul Keller and drummer Peter Siers.
While he was gaining momentum and audience recognition as a solo artist, Malone continued to work as a sideman for other popular artists. Beginning in 1995, Russell became a member of Diana Krall’s studio and live group. The live show featured a duet between Diana and Russell, which became a highlight of her show for many fans.
In 1996, Malone made his recording debut with Krall on her album All For You. The album is dedicated to the compositions of pianist Nat "King" Cole, and the ensemble sought to recreate his preferred format of piano, bass and guitar. The album’s opening song, “I’m An Errand Girl For Rhythm," perfectly demonstrate's the group dedication to accurately recreate Cole’s music.
“I’m An Errand Girl For Rhythm” begins with a brief introduction by the group before they enter the verse with Malone accompanying by playing a chord on every beat. Malone’s solo incorporates hard-swinging lines with lush ornamentations that are enhanced by Krall’s light performance. The added effect of unison passages towards the end gives the song a commanding finale.
Malone’s work on All of You helped Krall garner a Grammy nomination in the “Best Jazz Vocal Performance” category. The same year, Russell appeared in and performed on the soundtrack to director Robert Altman’s film Kansas City with trumpeter Nicholas Payton,bassist Ron Carter and tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman amongst others. Malone can also be seen in Jazz ‘34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing, a documentary by Altman about the making of Kansas City, in which he helps recreate the competitive atmosphere of Kansas City cutting sessions in the thirties.
The same year, Malone also appeared on pianist Stephen Scott’s album The Beautiful Thing, and continued to perform with Connick. In 1997, he appeared on pianist Benny Green’s album Kaleidoscope.
The same year, he recorded with Krall on her release Love Scenes, which was nominated for a Grammy Award. During this time, Russell performed with trumpeter Roy Hargroveas a member of his group Crisol. The group recorded the album Crisol: Habana, which earned the group a Grammy Award for “Best Latin Jazz Performance.”
In October 1998, Malone returned with his third solo effort Sweet Georgia Peach. Released on the Impulse!/GRP label, the album featured contributions from Ron Carter, pianist Kenny Barron and drummer Lewis Nash. The album featured originals and standards such as pianist Thelonious Monk’s “Bright Mississippi,” and the Negro Spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The album also featured the original composition “Song For Darius,” written for his then ten-year-old son.
The same year, Russell was awarded Down Beat magazine’s best jazz guitarist. In the summer of 1999, Malone decided to take a leave of absence from the Krall group in order to play live engagements with his trio, which consisted of Benny Green and bassist Christian McBride.
In 2000, Malone released his album Look Who’s Here, which featured bassist Richie Goods, drummer Byron Landham and pianist Anthony Wonsey. A highlight of the album is Malone’s rendition of the theme song to the “The Odd Couple” television series, which was written by composer Neal Hefti.
This song showcases Malone’s lively interaction with each element of the ensemble. Malone and Wonsey in particular display a loose, yet powerful relationship between chordal quality, harmonic eminence and melody. Russell at times exhibits several approaches from rhythm and blues to country and western styles, which results in a full and extensive timbre.
The following year, Malone recorded the album Heartstrings for Verve Records. Featuring McBride, Baron and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. The album of orchestral arrangements includes contributions from several noted arrangers including Alan Broadbent, Dori Caymmi and Johnny Mandel. The following year, Russell recorded with bassist Ray Brown and pianist Monty Alexander on the album Ray Brown, Monty Alexander & Russell Malone.
In 2003, Malone released the live album Jazz at the Bistro with Benny Green, titled after the name of the St. Louis club it was recorded at. The following year, Russell released the album Playground, his first for the Max Jazz label. He followed up with his 2006 release Live at Jazz Standard, Vol. 1. Accompanied by pianist Martin Bejerano, drummer Jonathan Blake and bassist Tassili Bond, the album was well received and warranted the 2007 followup Live at Jazz Standard, Vol. 2.
In 2008, Malone made a return appearance to the Jazz Standard for pianist Roger Kellaway’s album Live at the Jazz Standard. Recorded on May 28, 2006, the album is an interesting mix of important works in the jazz canon including composers Frank Churchill and Larry Morey’s “Someday My Prince Will Come” and composer Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues.”
The album also features a rendition of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond’s hit “Take Five.” What is most striking about Malone's version is how the song does not adhere to the song’s original time signature of 5/4, but instead relies on the more common time signature of 4/4. The result is a subtle reinvention that on a classic composition.
Malone proves himself to be an exceptional accompanist by implementing a variety of rhythmic designs and concepts to expand on the harmonic techniques of Kellaway. Russell’s solo on this track demonstrates his use of melodic bends and adornments, which acts as a subtle counterpoint to Kellaway’s firm inventions.
In October 2008, Malone performed in a duo alongside guitarist Bill Frisell at the noted club Yoshi’s in Oakland, California. In early 2009, the duo once again performed together and toured throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Malone lives in Jersey City, New Jersey with his companion Marlene and maintains an active performance and recording schedule.
Select Discography As a leader
As a leader
Russell Malone (1992)
Black Butterfly (1993)
Sweet Georgia Peach (1998)
Wholly Cats (1999)
Look Who’s Here (2000)
Live at Jazz Standard, Vol. 1 (2006)
Live at Jazz Standard, Vol. 2 (2007)
With Ray Brown & Monty Alexander
Ray Brown, Monty Alexander & Russell Malone (2002)
With Harry Connick Jr.
Blue Light, Red Light (1991)
With Benny Green
Jazz at the Bistro (2003)
With Roy Hargrove
Crisol: Habana (1997)
With Roger Kellaway
Live at the Jazz Standard (2008)
With Diana Krall
All For You (1996)
Love Scenes (1997)
When I Look In Your Eyes (1998)
The Look Of Love (2001)
Christmas Songs (2005)
With Stephen Scott
The Beautiful Thing (1996)
Contributor: Eric Wendell