First of all, it was his music. I mean, I started listening to jazz when I was 12. My first records were records. My first guitar records were records by George Benson, Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. And Ron Carter was on a whole lot of those records. And I bought the records because of the guitar players, but there was something about the bass player, something about his personality that just made me listen to him and to what he was doing, because it seems as if—and this is not just on those records, but a whole lot of other records that he’s on—everything seems to revolve around what he’s doing…Russell Malone
Russell Malone is, without a doubt, one of the most legendary jazz guitarists of our time. His studio recordings and live performances as both solo artist and sideman have earned him the reputation the consummate musician—one of the highest honors that bestowed upon those of his caliber. When JGL’s own Dr. Wayne Goins called him from Manhattan (Kansas!) during the early days of March, Russell was preparing to leave Manhattan (New York!) the next day—headed to Chicago to participate in a tribute to Les Paul the following day. Ever the gentleman, Malone still took time out of his busy schedule to share his experience with us—and what a unique story he has to tell!
So sit back, relax, and enjoy our exclusive interview with the one and only Russell Malone – Dr. Wayne Goins
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JGL: I know you don’t do a lot of interviews, and you’re very selective about who you share your time and energy with, so I really appreciate you taking the time to do this for me and Jazz Guitar Life.
RM: No problem, Wayne.
JGL: While preparing for this exclusive interview I’ve been trying to decide on what end of your long and storied career I wanna start with! But I think I should start with more current events and then we can work our way backwards. Let’s start with what’s happening right now. So, what have you been up to lately? I know you’ve been doing some things recently with the Golden Striker Trio featuring the legendary bassist Ron Carter, yes?
RM: Yes. Yes. it’s actually Ron’s group. He put it together back in 2002, and the band started out with myself on guitar, Ron Carter, and Mulgrew Miller on piano. He started the band with Mulgrew, and Mulgrew stayed there for a while. And then he [Miller] left about a year or two before he passed, because he wanted to focus more on his own career. But I’ve been playing with that band for over ten years now.
JGL: Wow, I didn’t know that.
RM: Yeah…then Mulgrew died and then Donald Vega—who’s in the band now—he came in, and took Mulgrew’s place.
JGL: I had never heard of that guy’s name until I started doing research on this Ron Carter trio. He’s playing his ass off!
RM: Oh, Donald’s an excellent piano player, man. He’s fantastic. He came in and he just, you know, he just took to it like a fish to water. When Mulgrew passed, not only did it leave a void in that trio, but it left a void, because he was such a strong presence on the jazz scene…and we all miss him.
JGL: I reached out to Ron Carter’s people and asked them to let him know I was going to write an article on the Golden Striker Trio history for one of the music magazines I write for. Sure enough, Ron Carter called me, and we talked for about two hours—I was thrilled beyond measure.
RM: Oh, that’s fantastic. Well, you know Ron’s not the most talkative guy, but if you ask him the right questions and, if he feels comfortable with you, you will get more information than you bargained for, man ’cause he’s got a lot of information to share.
JGL: How did you get with Ron? How long have you known him?
RM: The first time I saw Ron Carter play was in Atlanta, Georgia. It was back in the mid-80’s and Ron Carter came through town. I can’t remember the venue, but it was over on Peachtree in Buckhead. Ron Carter was doing a duo concert with Jim Hall—and Joe Pass opened up for them that night!
RM: Yeah. And the music was amazing, man. After the show was over, I got to meet everybody just very briefly. I shook Joe Pass’s hand. I shook Ron Carter’s hand and I shook Jim Hall’s hand, then I split. But I met him [Ron] again in New York—when I moved there. He was playing at a place up here called the Knickerbocker. It was him, pianist James Williams and drummer Tony Reedus. They were playing, and, you know, I got a chance to meet him there and reintroduce myself. And I would see him around New York playing in other places. And I didn’t expect him to remember me after that. I was just some guy shaking his hand and telling him how much I appreciated the music. Then in 1995, I got called to participate in this movie by Robert Altman called Kansas City—you remember that movie?
JGL: Absolutely—that scene you were in was awesome!
RM: So we were at the airport collecting our bags at baggage claim. It was me and Nicholas Payton and a whole bunch of other musicians–Olu Dara, a whole bunch of us. So we collected our luggage and we went outside to stand on the curb, waiting on the vehicle to pick us up and take us to the hotel. So we’re just standing there talking and shooting the breeze. And all of a sudden I hear somebody called my name and they were like, “Russell Malone, come on, let’s go. We gotta go! We gotta get to the hotel. You guys are messing around, over there!” And I turned around and it was Ron Carter, he was sitting in the van! [laughs.]
JGL: Wow! [more laughter.]
RM: And I was like, ‘man, Ron Carter knows who I am?’ He called my full name. I said to myself, ‘Ron Carter knows me?? Cool!!’ So we got in the van, and I sat next to him and we talked and we went on over to the hotel, and checked in. I had had dinner with him later on that night and we just sat and talked some more. The next morning we got up “before the chickens,” so to speak, to start shooting for the film. Once the film shoot was done he started calling me for gigs, man!
JGL: How cool!! Where did y’all play?
RM: The first gig he called me for was at the Museum of Modern Art; and on the gig was me, him, pianist Stephen Scott, saxophonist Houston Person and drummer Lewis Nash. I was like, ‘wow, this is incredible, man.’ I’d always wanted to play with Houston. I’d always loved his playing. And Lewis Nash can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. And that was my first time playing with Stephen Scott and we just had a ball! So Ron Carter started called me for another gig at MOMA. This time. It was with… I think Lewis was still playing drums, Stephen Scott was still on piano, but this time Jesse Davis was the horn player. So, you know, I did about two or three more of those types of gigs with him at MOMA. And then he started calling me for other stuff. And then I called him for my recording, Sweet Georgia Peach.
JGL: Oh, that’s awesome. Nice to have an opportunity to return the favor!
RM: Yeah, and so I’ve been playing with Ron Carter off and on since 1995, more than 25 years, man.
JGL: What do you think he saw in you that made him so comfortable to gravitate towards you that way?
RM: Well, I think it might have been the fact that I gave him the respect that he is entitled to—first of all—as an older gentleman, because he’s a man. He’s a man first before he is a musician.
JGL: Yeah, that’s right.
RM: And I gave him that respect, you know, because I grew up in the South, man. You know, we were always taught to give respect and honor to our elders.
RM: And I gave it to him, you know. First of all, I didn’t just walk up to him. I didn’t call him Ron. I didn’t. I called him Mister…Mr. Carter. Or I called him, “Mr. C.” I’ve never addressed him as Ron. I would never do that to any older adult. So I addressed him, you know, respectfully. So to answer your question, he must have sensed that I was serious about the music. I mean, maybe that’s what drew him to me. I don’t know. But that’s what I’m thinking.
JGL: I think I’m pretty sure it was that, but I think there may be another level added to it, that I don’t think can be separated. I think from a musical standpoint, he may have assessed something in you in terms of your respect for the history of the legacy of jazz guitar—that he might have seen or heard something in you that might have made him think, ‘this dude has done his homework in that regard; he might be worth investing in.’ Because, you know, as you get older, you [Carter] kind of are already thinking about how to pass it on to the next generation, which would, in fact, be YOU, Russell. What do you think about that part of it?
RM: Well, you know, you would probably have to ask him about what drew him to me. I’m just thinking that it was because I was so respectful to him. Maybe that’s what it was, but you would probably get a better answer if you asked him…[pause]…but I can tell you what made me gravitate towards him. I can definitely tell you what made me gravitate towards Ron.
JGL: By all means, do tell!
RM: First of all, it was his music. I mean, I started listening to jazz when I was 12. My first records were records. My first guitar records were records by George Benson, Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. And Ron Carter was on a whole lot of those records. And I bought the records because of the guitar players, but there was something about the bass player, something about his personality that just made me listen to him and to what he was doing, because it seems as if—and this is not just on those records, but a whole lot of other records that he’s on—everything seems to revolve around what he’s doing. And one of the things that I’ve picked up on having played with him for so long is, it taught me how to listen to the bass, not just hear the bass, but to listen to the bass. And we’ve had several conversations about listening, and he always talked about the importance of trusting the band that you’re in, and listening to the band that you’re in, particularly the bass player. Because he told me that one of the things that was a pet peeve of his was this: A lot of people who were on the front line, a lot of horn players, they hear the bass, but they don’t really listen to the bass. And he said that they treat the rhythm section as if it’s some Jamey Aebersold practice thing, you know—to practice to instead of just interacting right with what’s going on.
RM: Hearing him say that really resonated with me. So when I started playing with him I started to really hone in on what he was doing.
JGL: I can dig it.
RM: Oh, and something else that was eye opening too: When I bought those Miles records? My first Miles Davis record was Live at the Plugged Nickel—you know that record?
JGL: Oh yeah, yeah!
RM: Boy, they’re just throwing caution to the wind on that recording, man! But I was listening to that record and some of the other recordings like ESP, all the Miles Records that Ron Carter played on. And me at the time—being as naive as I was—I’m listening to Herbie Hancock and listening to all of this crazy harmony, those crazy harmonies that he was playing. I’m like, ‘man, this piano player, he’s really something else!’ But once I started to play with Ron Carter, I had to rethink that notion. Because I strongly feel that a lot of the harmonic direction in that band…I feel that Ron Carter—after having played with him—he was the instigator.
RM: Yes! For where that music went harmonically…because he does that. He does that in his band. He just—you just never know what’s gonna happen. He never knows what’s gonna happen, but he always knows why it’s gonna happen. See, the thing that’s so cool about playing with him is that everything has a place and a purpose, and he never…he may not always know what he’s gonna do, but when he does it, he always knows why he does it.
RM: There’s never any randomness going on there.
RM: So playing with him has been really wonderful for me. And every now and then I have to—when I’m on the bandstand with him—I have to pinch myself to make sure that it’s not a dream, because I mean, here’s a guy that’s played with Wes Montgomery! All my guitar idols…he’s played with most of them.
RM: And you know, I get the same feeling about playing with Ray Brown!
JGL: I’m sure!
RM: Yeah, I’ve been spoiled man. I’ve gotten the chance to spend time with some really wonderful bass players. And Ron Carter and Ray Brown are two very important bass players in this music.
Part 2 with Russell Malone coming soon.
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Author Info: Dr. Wayne Everett Goins, University Distinguished Professor of Music (2015), is the Director of Jazz Studies in the School of Music, Theater, & Dance at Kansas State University, where he conducts big bands and teaches combos, private guitar lessons, jazz theory and jazz improvisation courses. He is also a prolific writer and published author many times over. For more detialed information please click here.