Jazz guitarist Russell Malone has thrived as a solo artist and as a notable sideman. He got some early breaks in the mid-1980s playing with organist Jimmy Smith and vocalist Freddy Cole, and soon enough shared the stage with vocalist Harry Connick Jr. when the performer’s star began to rise in the early ‘90s.
A few years later, he toured and recorded with Diana Krall, another pianist-turned-vocal star, as she also made a breakthrough. These days, though, Malone, 42, is focused on his own bag. He has a variety of projects, including a combo with pianist Benny Green, and another outfit with bassist Ron Carter and pianist Mulgrew Miller. “I love playing my own music, but I still like the idea of playing with great musicians, and interpreting their music.”
We caught up with Malone between summer tour dates, during one of his all-too-brief visits to his Jersey City, N.J., home. “I like being home. I like catching up on my reading and my cooking. But I like being on the road, too. Because someone told me once, “if you’re not appearing, you’re disappearing.”
The guitarist hails from Albany, Ga., where he was born Nov. 8, 1963 at home, near the corner of two streets rather presciently named Swift and Society. Indeed, Malone has run with some fast company. Long before he hit the major leagues—recording tribute albums with his hero, BB King, for instance, or laying down funky riffs for Aretha Franklin and Cristina Aguilera on VH-1’s Divas concert specials—Malone worked the Georgia club circuit. During his days as a fixture on the Atlanta nightclub scene, he saw a lot of colorful activity from his spot on the bandstand.
“I remember this place called the Living Room,” he says, in a voice resonant and prone to jocular asides. “It was inhabited by pimps, hustlers, prostitutes and politicians. There was some good music in there! Jimmy Smith came through there, and I met a lot of great players. It was a hell of a place!”
Malone usually plays the high-ticket joints these days. But his career got started, as it did for many musicians born in the Deep South, in the pew.
What got you into music?
The first music I heard was in my church. It was so soulful and had so much conviction. It was a sanctified church. Tambourines and all the stuff. But I don’t remember seeing a guitar until I was about four or five years old. I still remember the guy’s name: Johnny Will Williams. It made such a strong impression on me. I never got to speak to this guy, but I remember seeing him. Whenever we’d go to church, I’d always watch him play. And when I heard the guitar, I knew that was the instrument I’d use the rest of my life to express myself.
Sanctified church music must have felt pretty intense to a little boy.
Even at that age, I was aware of how people responded when they heard music. Some people clap their hands. Some people scream or dance. That’s pretty powerful, if you can tap into all those emotions. Even now when I go out to hear music, I try to not go in there listening to it as a musician. I try to listen with the same purity and innocence I listened to it as a kid.
After your mother bought you your first guitar, what were your initial influences?
I would watch and listen and try to emulate what I heard in church. And my mother would play me a lot of records: the Soul Stirrers, Sam Cooke, the Dixie Hummingbirds. The first guitar solo I ever copied was from this gentleman who played with the Dixie Hummingbirds, Howard Carroll. The song was “Standing by the Bedside of My Neighbor.”
You also watched a lot of television.
TV used to be a lot hipper.
It was Glen Campbell!
Yeah, you had Glen Campbell. Roy Clark. You could actually turn on the television and see people playing instruments.
Johnny Cash had his show.
Porter Waggoner had a show called Wagon House. I forgot about that one. I saw Merle Travis on that show when I was a kid. You could see guys playing the instrument. It looked good. A lot of times it sounded good. The first time I saw B.B. King, that was a pivotal moment in my life. I saw him on Sanford and Son. I never heard that kind of tone on guitar before. What he was doing was mesmerizing. And the way he sang was very much like a minister in church.
And then you saw George Benson.
That’s what made me want to play jazz. I saw him on PBS’s Soundstage, back in 1975. “Breezin’” [Benson’s pop breakthrough] hit the next year. I’ll never forget it. It was on a school night, at 10 o’clock. I saw this guy sitting in a barstool and playing the most incredible music I ever heard in my life.
You’ve also mentioned Wes Montgomery.
There was a gentleman at the church who was a huge Wes Montgomery fan. He laid two recordings on me that changed my life forever. One was Smokin’ at the Half Note and the other was Boss Guitar.
Outside of musical enthusiasms, I hear you’re a big movie fan.
I just watched Sunset Boulevard with Gloria Swanson and William Holden. That’s a great movie, man! She’s a great actress, too. I remember years ago I was watching an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, and she appeared in an episode as herself. I love movies, though. When I’m home I catch on all these things.