“So we get to his house and he says to me, ‘I want to hear you play something, take out your box and play something for me.’ So at that time I was a speed demon. You know, I was playing…I started tearing over the changes to “All The Things You Are.” I didn’t even address the melody. I just started playing over the changes and I could hear him. He started start to sigh, as if to say, ‘Oh, here’s another one of these guys,’ you know, that kind of thing. So, he says, ‘Let me see your—gimme your guitar.’ So he took my guitar and started to play with those arthritic fingers on his left hand…he started to play one of the most beautiful solo renditions of “Lush Life” that I’d ever heard, man.”Russell Malone
In Part III of this exclusive interview series, Russell Malone reflects on his lengthy guitar legacy as he shares rare stories of his relationship with legendary bassist Ray Brown. Along the way, Russell unveils precious memories of guitarist John Collins, Calvin Keys and Jack Peterson, while also staying on touch with current movers and shakers on the jazz guitar scene, including nods to Dan Wilson, Cecil Alexander, Isaiah Sharkey and more. Sit back, relax and enjoy the show!
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JGL: Let’s talk about your approach to solo guitar playing?—when and how did you develop your unique style?
MALONE: Well, I’ve always loved it, but it was just something that I never really just took seriously until I met this guy named John Collins, who was the last guitarist in that [Nat] King Cole band. And [legendary bassist] Ray Brown turned me on to him. Ray Brown heard me play. He said to me: ‘Kid, you can play, but you got a lot to learn.’ He said, ‘You ever hear of a guitar player named John Collins?’ And I had heard of John, but I had never really sat down and just checked him out. And so Ray wrote his number down, and then he handed it to me. And his exact words to me were, ‘The next time you’re in Los Angeles, you take your little young ass over there and go get some of that shit!
JGL: [laughing] Ha!! Ray brown actually said that to you?
MALONE: Ray Brown told me that, man! This is when I first met him, when we were at a rehearsal. The way that I had met Ray Brown was when I was still playing with Harry [Connick]. And I was still living in Atlanta at the time. We were supposed to do some TV show. It was myself, Ray Brown, Harry Connick, Jr., Shannon Powell on drums and Ned Goold on tenor saxophone. But Harry ended up not showing up on time. He ended up being three hours late for the rehearsal. So that left just us, and provided us with an opportunity to spend time hanging out with Ray Brown.
So we hung out and he talked to us and just answered our questions. He told us about his life—told us about Charlie Parker and Dizzy and his days with those guys. And we sat around and just played tunes. So Harry finally showed up. We finished the rehearsal, and when Harry left, Ray Brown was leaving—he was packing his bass up, and you know how it is when we get around guys like that: We always want to get constructive feedback on what we’re doing, right. So I said to Ray, I said, ‘Listen Mr. Brown, it was a pleasure to play with you and meet you and hang out with you. Is there something that I need to address in my playing?’ Because you know, old folks may not always say anything, but they’re always listening. So he said to me, ‘Well, you know, you can play, but you got a lot to learn. And then that’s when he gave me John’s number. And that’s when he said, ‘Take your little young ass over there and go get some of that shit.’
The next time we were in Los Angeles, I was playing out there with Harry at the Universal Amphitheatre out in Burbank and I was staying in Hollywood at a place called the hotel Sofitel over on Beverley Boulevard. So I called John Collins up. Now, I don’t know if you know this name? John Collins? I mean, he is the guy who played with Art Taum, Nat King Cole and Fletcher Henderson. That’s how far back this gentleman went.
JGL: Yes, I’ve definitely heard of him, but I admit I don’t have many recordings of his.
MALONE: I called him up, told him who I was and that Ray Brown had given me his number. And he was a little apprehensive at first, because he was retired. He wasn’t really doing that much playing, but he was still listening and he was still active, you know he kept his ear to the ground. And he still practiced the guitar. He was a little apprehensive at first, but I guess he must have sensed how sincere I was. So this old dude who was pushing 80 at the time!
MALONE: Yeah, so he drove in his car, came by my hotel, picked me up and he was still sizing me up. I’m in the car on the drive to his house, trying to engage him in small talk, but he wasn’t really in the mood. He was still sizing me up. But the fact that he came to pick me up, that was enough for me. So we get to his house and he says to me, ‘I want to hear you play something, take out your box and play something for me.’ So at that time I was a speed demon. You know, I was playing…I started tearing over the changes to “All The Things You Are.” I didn’t even address the melody. I just started playing over the changes and I could hear him. He started start to sigh, as if to say, ‘Oh, here’s another one of these guys,’ you know, that kind of thing. So, he says, ‘Let me see your—gimme your guitar.’ So he took my guitar and started to play with those arthritic fingers on his left hand…he started to play one of the most beautiful solo renditions of “Lush Life” that I’d ever heard, man.
JGL: Oh, my…
MALONE: And I was just totally dumbfounded by what I had heard. But just watching him and just seeing how he got around the guitar? Oh yeah—incredible. And then he said to me that one of the things that worries him about a lot of the younger players of my generation was that everybody’s so busy trying to be a horn player and they wanna play all these single notes and they got all the speed and everything. He said, ‘that’s all well and good. That’s definitely a part of it.’ But he also said, ‘If that’s all you’re concentrating on, then you’re selling the instruments short.’
MALONE: Yup…he said, ‘You’re selling it short—you’re not getting the most out of the guitar because, depending on how you look at it, the guitar can function as a small orchestra in your hands.’ And that really struck a chord with me. Then he started to talk about seeing Andrés Segovia because John was a World War II veteran. He had he fought in World War II because he was born in 1913. So he was old enough to have that experience. So he started to talk about when he had seen and Segovia in Europe, when he was younger—I think he may have seen him in Germany or France or somewhere. But he started to talk about how Segovia could sit in front of a crowd of people and just mesmerize them with just sheer beauty out of the instrument, and how you could hear a pin drop in the place. And then he [Collins] started to talk about other people who approached the guitar that way, like Joe Pass—who he loved, by the way. He talked about Joe Pass, Johnny Smith, George Van Eps and Andrés Segovia. And then he played some more for me. And once he dropped all of these things on me, I started to look at the guitar differently.
JGL: Yeah I can totally see why!
MALONE: Yeah. John was in my life for about 10, 11 years up until when he died. In fact, Kenny Burrell and I played at his funeral.
JGL: Oh You gotta tell me a little bit about that before I get to the next question!
MALONE: This was in 2001. That’s when he died. I met him in 1990. Every time I would go out to Los Angeles, there were two guys I would always make a point of going to see: I’d always make a point of going to see John Collins and the other guy that I always made a point of going to see was Benny Carter.
MALONE: So I would always go to John’s house and hang out with him whenever I would go there. He would come out to my shows and listen to me play and give me some evaluation. He’d tell me what he liked and what he didn’t like. So, you know, he really was a mentor to me, man. So when he died—he got sick and had cancer. His daughter, who I had met before at his house, she told me that John wanted me and Kenny Burrell to play at his funeral.
We went to the funeral and we played three tunes. We played “What a Friend We Have In Jesus”, “My Buddy,” and “There Will Never Be Another You.”
MALONE: Yeah. So, I’m very thankful for John Collins…but there’s another guy that I can’t leave out who is also instrumental in my approaching the guitar from that perspective. There was a guy who used to teach down at the University of North Florida. His name is Jack Peterson. he’ll be 90 in October. He lives out in Arizona. But when I met him, he was teaching out at the UNF. And I met him back in ‘90, ‘91, somewhere in there. But he was another guy who had all that Johnny Smith stuff under his fingers. And he was just a wonderful solo guitarist, but he could burn too. He had the chops to burn on other things too, but he would always sending me things in the mail, like recordings by George Van Eps, Johnny Smith, George Barnes, and Carl Kress. He was very forthcoming with his information.
JGL: I remember you talking to me about Barnes and Kress, you were the first person that told me about them back in ’91 when we both lived in Atlanta. And I still have the CD that I bought from you telling me about it.
MALONE: Well, the way that I got hip to those guys, there was a guy who lived in Albany, Georgia named Hunter Parker who owned the music store I worked at called Parker House of Music. And he knew that I was into jazz guitar and he turned me on to this record by Carl Kress and George Barnes—Live at Town Hall. That’s how I got into that. And then after listening to them, I started getting into the players, like Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson and Allen Reuss. I just totally immersed myself in jazz guitar and all different types of jazz guitar
JGL: You talk about Jack Peterson, but every time I hear the name, Jack, I think of Jack Wilkins.
MALONE: No, no, no…two different worlds.
JGL: Right…but is there anything there with you and Wilkins?
MALONE: Well, I knew Jack—he’s a good friend of mine. In fact, we played together in a band. “Five Guitars play the Music of Mingus. This is back in 1994. I was in this band. It was me, Dave Fiuczynski, Adam Rogers Peter Leitch and Jack Wilson…wait—I’m sorry—Jack Wilkins. Jack Wilkins. And sometimes it was Ed Cherry who would do some gigs with us. Larry Coryell would also do some gigs. And sometimes and David Gilmore. The rhythm section was John Hicks on piano, Andy McKee on bass—sometimes we had Ugonna Okegwa on bass. On drums was Winard Harper. Anyway, yeah, I know Jack. He’s a wonderful player.
JGL: So you made a bit of a Freudian slip when you said “Jack Wilson,” but now you’ve made me think of Anthony Wilson.
MALONE: Oh yeah. He’s a good friend of mine too. Wonderful player.
JGL: Yeah. He’s the son of the great big band composer Gerald Wilson…and that’s a whole other chapter! Gerald Wilson and his role in the jazz pantheon…
MALONE: Yeah, I got to record with him too.
JGL: Did you?
MALONE: Yeah, I played on one of his last recordings. I think it’s called In My Time, if I’m not mistaken.
JGL: Oh wow. [Editor’s note: It was recorded in 2005 on Mack Avenue Records.]
MALONE: Yeah it’s a big band record. He wanted me to play on this tune of his called “Teri.” [Track #10, the final song on the album.]
MALONE: The song was originally on a Gerald Wilson album that had Joe Pass playing on it—it was called Moment of Truth.
JGL: Wow, I had no idea…[Editor’s note: It was recorded in 1962 on Pacific Jazz.]
MALONE: Yep. That’s right. Yeah, he was a nice man. He was a very nice man.
JGL: So let’s switch topics a bit. Who are the current cats on the scene that you might feel worthy to pass the torch on to?
MALONE: Hmmm, let’s see… Have you heard Dan Wilson?
JGL: Oh yes! I love his playing. I interviewed him recently—what a great guy he is!
MALONE: Yeah. Calvin Keys told me about him…you know Calvin Keys, right?
JGL: I know of him, but I don’t actually know him, no.
MALONE: Well, you need to know Calvin Keys. He’s one of my heroes.
JGL: Okay, I will definitely have to check him out a lot more. Where can I find him?
MALONE: He’s living out in the Bay area. He lives in Oakland, California. He’s in his 80’s. He’s still around, but he was the one who called me up and was raving about Dan Wilson. I said, ‘Really?’ He gave me Dan’s number and I called Dan and we’ve been friends ever since, man.
JGL: That’s really great to hear—I had that same experience with Dan when I called him.
MALONE: And there’s another young fellow you might wanna check out—Cecil Alexander.
JGL: I know about him. We interviewed him for this magazine back in December last year. He teaches at Berklee College of Music. He’s got a new album that coming out in a few months.
MALONE: You might wanna check him out. There’s another guy up he lives in Chicago. Very interesting fellow named Isaiah Sharkey. He’s worth putting your ears on.
JGL: Wow, that’s a new name to my ears—will do!
MALONE: He lives in your hometown—Chicago. Yeah. Ask Bobby Broom about it.
JGL: Ooh yeah!
MALONE: And then there’s a guy, this really nice player that lives up here in New York. He’s a pretty cool’s guitar player—a guy named Sam Raderman.
JGL: I don’t know anything about him yet…
MALONE: Check him out, man. He’s worth putting your ears on.
JGL: He was in whose band?
MALONE: He was the last guitarist in Freddy Cole’s band before Freddy passed.
JGL: I thought that was Randy Napoleon.
MALONE: No, no, no. Randy—yeah, he’s also a great player, but Sam Raderman—check him out.
In our next and final installment on Russell Malone, we will hear the master share his thoughts about chord soloing, playing ballads, organ trios, teaching music, the role of the guitar, and becoming an elder statesman. You don’t wanna miss this epic revelation, so stay tuned!
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