Russell Malone looks for honesty in the art of jazz

Russell Malone is a guitarist who gives you everything in his playing. You get fire and touch, you get beauty and tone.

He’s one of the most versatile guitarists in the jazz world over the last 40 years, playing with the likes of Jimmy Smith, Harry Connick Jr., Diana Krall, Ron Carter and Ray Brown.

Ahead of a performance in Toronto, Malone joined us for a conversation about what it takes to find your sound, and how he defines his own.

You’re known for the beauty of your tone and sound. You’ve said that it’s all in your hands, that it’s who you are. You’ve said you were listening to yourself as a 16-year-old and you could recognize all the traits of your sound. Is it who you are when you’re born, or is it a process by which you come to that sound after a lot of hard work?

I think everybody has a sound, everybody has a voice. What everybody doesn’t have — particularly in the early stages of development — is the confidence to speak with that voice. Think about it. You could take the most derivative-sounding person, and if you listen to them closely enough, you’re going to hear some things that are unique and personal to that person. But everybody doesn’t always have the confidence to speak with their own voice, because early on, we’re all looking to be accepted, and we want to be liked. There was a period in my career when I felt that I needed to play a certain way in order to be accepted — I wanted to be liked. But after a while, I reached a certain point and I said, you know what? When it comes to being Russell Malone, there’s nobody better than me. I’m the best Russell Malone there is. It’s kind of like coming to the realization that you parents aren’t perfect. I don’t have to make the same choices that they made in life. I don’t have to play the same things that my predecessors played, or play it the way that they played it. That doesn’t mean that I don’t respect them, but once you realize that you don’t have to do that, then that’s a healthy step toward your own personal development.

When you say you were trying to massage your sound to please people, in what ways were you doing that?

I wanted to be accepted. I felt that I had to play like Wes Montgomery or, you know, the people before me, in order to be accepted. But after a while, you just have to accept your so-called imperfections, your quirks, all of that. At the end of the day, that’s what counts. That’s what matters. This music is about personal expression — not just jazz, but any style of music. It’s all about personal expression.

Recommended Links

There’s something about the honesty that you put out there about your own development, and the teachable moments in your life. To that point, you’ve talked about a gig you did in Philadelphia with Trudy Pitts, and you were playing a little bit outside to get some hoots and hollers from some of the younger people, and you had a chance to speak with Kenny Burrell afterward. Do you remember that story?

I remember it like it was yesterday. We were playing a Sunday brunch, and I was the youngest guy in the band … We were just playing tunes. The audience was a group of people who liked to hear songs. Kenny Burrell happened to be in the audience that day, but there were also some young people, a little bit younger than me, and whenever I would play something a little dissonant, a little on the outside, they’d be hooting and hollering. The more they did that, the more outside I played. So, after the gig was over, I was on my way to go greet Kenny Burrell but these guys stopped me and complimented me on what I played. They said, “Yeah man, you really push the envelope.” I’m feeling good about myself, and then I walked over to Kenny Burrell. We exchanged pleasantries and I had the gall to say to him, “Hey, do you hear what I’m working on?” He put it all in perspective. He said, “What you did might have worked well in another concert, but look around the room. Look at the people you’re playing with.” He said, “I understand you want to experiment and everything, but you also have to play for the situation. Allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to play for the situation. Don’t ever try to prove anything, because as long as you’re trying to prove something, it’s not honest.” And I never forgot that. I passed the lesson on to people who were coming up behind me, the younger players.

To that point about putting the audience first, this is a quote that you said: “I think we all sound better when our bills are paid and when our bellies are full.” You like to play for people and you like to have success. You’re inclusive and you want this to be a profession that rewards you.

I mean, if you’re not reaching people, what’s the point? You can be a virtuoso and just play for yourself in the practice room. To me, there’s no glory in being a broke virtuoso. I don’t mean to come off as if I’m putting the sole emphasis on money, but I like to eat. I’ve got two kids. They’re grown now, but I like to be able to take care of myself, take care of my family. I like to eat. I like nice things. So, I’m fortunate that I’m able to make a decent living. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no virtue in being a core virtuoso. I don’t believe in that. That’s why I bristle up whenever I hear people make comments about Wes Montgomery or George Benson “selling out.” What the heck does that mean? I see it as them cashing in on their talent. Better them to cash in on it than some imitator.

It also seems that that approach is also very fitting to your style. You’re one of the most lyrical players. That’s your strength. I’ve heard that you’re happy as long as you’ve got good chord changes and good melody.

That’s very true. I like songs. I like to play songs and I like to play melody. I can play a beautiful ballad, just play that melody, and I don’t even need to solo on it. I just get so much satisfaction out of playing the melody. There are so many beautiful songs out there. That approach has served me well. It’s one of the reasons I get along with singers. I don’t need to be in the spotlight playing all these blazing solos. I like being able to accompany, lay that backdrop down for them and play something pretty behind them to let them shine. I did a workshop not too long ago, and these young students were asking me what I work on. And I told them at this point, I’m always working on time. I’m always working on time, because you’ve got to make it feel good. And sometimes I pick up my guitar and just work on melodies — making those melodies sing. I’m just as influences by vocalists as I am by instrumentalists. In fact, whenever I learn a song, particularly a ballad, I listen to Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Ella… I listen to these singers just so I can get the story and because I think learning the lyrics is very important. I want to have that lyrical quality be at the forefront of my playing. That’s who I am.

In essence, you’re trying to sing through your guitar.

That’s exactly right. You nailed it.

Are you sometimes thinking of the lyrics themselves when you play? Are you trying to emote the same way that the lyric would be telling that story?

Yes, indeed. I play a song like For Heaven’s Sake, it’s on that Billie Holiday record Lady in Satin. I think about the lyrics, “For heaven’s sake, let’s fall in love / It’s no mistake to fall in live / Angels holding hands with me / How heavenly heaven can be.” I’m thinking about these things, and when I think about that, it helps me to really get to the heart of the matter.