Self-taught guitarist Russell Malone has a very clean, elegant style, and is equally at home playing ballads or swinging. When he was in his 20s, he joined the band of organist Jimmy Smith, and went on to join Harry Connick Jr.’s big and. He then worked with Diana Krall during much of the 90s and early 2000s, appearing on three Grammy winning albums with her, as well as on Roy Hargove’s Grammy winner Crisol, and on a couple of albums with pianist Benny Green. Malone most recently appeared in the Twin Cities with Ron Carter last Fall. He’s released a dozen albums of his own since 1992, all of which have been well received.
As part of the 2016 Twin Cities Jazz Festival, Malone will bring an all-star quartet to Mears Park on Saturday, June 25th, at 6:30pm — Rick Germanson, a frequent visitor to our town on piano, Luke Sellick on bass, and acclaimed drummer Willie Jones III. I had a chance to see Malone and his quartet during the 2015 Jazz Cruise, where he was sitting in with a number of groups in addition to leading his own. He was gracious enough to grant me a few minutes time in between sets. This is a lightly edited version of the interview.
LE: What was your very first musical memory?
RM: Growing up in the church, hearing church music. That was the first music I heard before I got into jazz. My mother had records by groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds, Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers, and just hearing the people in the church sing those songs. It was very moving music. Not sophisticated, but very moving.
LE: What drew you to the guitar?
RM: Hearing the gentleman in my church perform. This old man, that I never got to meet, but I saw him (regularly). Keep in mind that I already had a love and a fascination with music. Even at the age of 4 years old I was aware of the different types of emotions and feelings and reactions that you could get from people through playing music. I was aware of that, which always fascinated me. You could play music and you could connect with total strangers. Somebody you don’t know would hear you and then they laugh, they cry, you get these different types of reactions. That’s so powerful.
The gentleman brought the guitar to church, and I was fascinated by the way that it looked, going to church one Sunday and seeing it perched against one of the pews. This interesting looking object that was totally foreign to me at the time sitting there perched up against the bench, And then there was this cable that extended from the guitar into this box, which was the amplifier. The whole getup was just so fascinating, and then when he started to play and I heard the sound and knew that whatever I was thinking musically, or feeling musically, that would be the vehicle that I would use to express those thoughts or feelings. That’s how I became fascinated with the instrument.
LE: You’ve talked about being a young man and transcribing and playing other people’s solos to learning how to play chords. How did you know you had a sound that was yours?
That’s a good question. I think everybody has their own voice, their own identity. They may not know that when they’re younger, but when you’re younger you want to be validated and you want to be liked. I’ll use myself as an example. There was a period when I felt I needed to play certain types of songs and play things a certain way because I wanted the approval of other people. I wanted them to like me.
After a while, this happened when I reached my mid-thirties, I came to the conclusion that no matter how much I loved my mentors like Wes Montgomery and George Benson, and all the people I grew up listening to, no matter how much I loved them, when it came to being Russell Malone, I’m the best there is. No one can outdo me at being that.
It’s kind of like getting to the point of realizing your parents aren’t perfect. You don’t have to make the same choices that they made. You don’t have to like everything about them. You don’t have to like everything about your heroes. That doesn’t mean that you don’t love them or respect them, but you don’t have to make the same choices in life that they made. That same thing applies to music. You find yourself on stage with some of the guys you came up listening to, like Kenny Burrell or George Benson, if you’re on stage playing with them, what are you going to do, play like them or play like you? Nobody wants to hear that.
LE: How did you know you had reached that point where it was your sound, where it was distinct from others?
RM: Well, once I realized I didn’t have to make the same musical choices, I learned to accept myself. You have to accept yourself warts and all. If anybody else doesn’t like it, that’s not your problem. You can’t let that be your problem. You have to let that be their problem.
LE: Were you doing things in terms of the use of your instrument?
RM: Just playing like me. Just accepting my sound. I’m never going to sound like those guys. You have to accept that. I’m never going to be them, but I am going to be me. I’m the best there is at being me.
LE: Thank you very much for your time. I know you have a full schedule here on the ship.
RM: My pleasure.