Russell Malone: Playground – Jazz Guitar Life CD Review

“You Should Know Better” begins the CD and reminds me of an earlier tune “Mugshot” off of the Sweet Georgia Peach CD. This is a great tune in its own right though and let’s the listener know what they are in for. Malone’s solo is infused with a heavy blues feel and if nothing else, you gotta hear his wicked vibrato and aggressive tone. This is a man who can get down and dirty, and sweet and tasty. He’s obviously been influenced by a wide range of musical styles and his solos bring some of these influences into play. A great way to start this wonderful CD.

“You’ve Got A Friend” is a thoughtful take on a pop classic standard in the solo guitar tradition that doesn’t get carried away with trying to sound like a treatise on chord-melody guitar playing. It’s simple and tasteful as if he recognized the beauty of the tune and wanted to capture that quality while still keeping it fresh with his jazz stylings. And if so, he has succeeded.

“Blues For Mulgrew” starts off with a slinky melody before getting into an almost free form interplay between guitar and piano (Martin Bejerano). The rhythm section propels the music along aggressively for the soloists to play off of, which they do in a wild interplay of improvisation, and then bassist Tassili Bond takes a nice solo before the band closes out the tune with a quick revisit of the head (main melody) and a crashing ending.

“Something To Live For” is a Billy Strayhorn ballad that opens up with a beautiful chord/melody intro before stating the theme. As a ballad, the tune allows for plenty of space which Malone acknowledges while still getting in a couple of really sweet well-placed string bends during his solo. He ends the tune with a nicely voiced set of chords that demonstrate taste and great ears.

“Sugar Buzz” sounds like it’s name…frantic and fast paced with a head that spirals up and down before it crashes into a minor blues progression for the soloists. Vibraphonist Joe Locke provides some great improv before Malone comes in with a repeating figure that just touches the outside harmonic structure before becoming an all out blowing session matching the frenzied pace of the tune. Bejerano then enters the fray with a flurry of bop based lines and then they close out the tune as they began it, with Malone, Bejerano, and Locke, tackling the melody. Got me jumping that’s for sure.

“Playground” is a sweet tune that somehow reminds me of recent Pat Metheny fare and is a nice reprise from the frenzied guitar slinging that Malone provides on many of the other tunes on the album. I feel it should have no problem making it’s way onto the air waves of some of the more popular radio stations around that cater to a wide jazz audience.

“Remind Me” the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields tune is played in the solo guitar tradition and is a very tasty bit of playing. Especially nice is his use of artificial harmonics much like Lenny Breau or early Larry Coryell. Malone makes chord melody playing sound so easy but give it a deeper listen and you will hear things that make you go “huh!” especially his descending bass line work, harmonic sense, and wonderful sounding chord voicings. Great stuff indeed.

“We’ve Only Just Begun” is a great take on an old Carpenter’s pop tune with a nice, subtle Latin feel provided by drummer E.J. Strickland. Of course there is the usual great playing by Malone and some nice interplay between him and Strickland during Malone’s solo. Definitely a great version with a rocking beginning and end.

“Invisible Colors” is an easy going tune that allows Malone to play with his usual taste and ability borrowing on occasion his command of the blues and its relevant attitude.

“Mandela” is a tune that for me evokes an early CTI (Creed Taylor Record Label) feel. With the addition of Gary Bartz on saxophone, the tune takes on a slinky feel as Tassili Bond’s bass lays down a groove pattern that becomes infectious and fun. It’s a great rhythmic pulse to play with and Malone does just that while still leaving lots of space between his notes. Actually, his tone and feel remind me of early Benson, especially the Blue Horizon album which I think there might be a subtle nod to. A real nice vibe and great playing all around.

I would seriously encourage everyone into jazz guitar, and jazz in general, to pick up this CD as it is a great testimonial to the efforts of a wonderful guitar player and unique musician.

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