“My perception of the guitar has not changed. It’s still the same as it always has been, which is: it can function as a horn, it can function as part of the ensemble. I think that’s good, but it can also accompany…one of my favorite things to do is to accompany. And when you’re accompanying—and I’m not just talking about four-to-the bar, Freddie Green style, because that’s not the only way to play rhythm guitar—there’s several ways to play rhythm guitar in country bands, in gospel music, in funk, in rock. That hasn’t changed. I mean, the guitar can still serve as part of a foundation. The bass, the drums, the guitar—that’s the foundation in a group…and it’s been that way. And I don’t see it changing, but it can also function as part of the ensemble too, just like horn players, playing individual parts.“Russell Malone
In our 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 – (Interviewed on March 10, 2022).
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JGL: Let’s talk a little bit about the whole concept and the value of paying your dues in the organ trio. To me, it’s kind of like a rite of passage for any bona fide jazz guitarist… do you agree?
MALONE: Well, I don’t know. I mean, a lot of guitar players have done it. I never thought about it as being a rite of passage. I think it’s valuable to get any kind of sideman experience with an older veteran. And I’ve been very fortunate, because I played with a lot of them—and a lot of them didn’t play organ. Freddy Cole didn’t play the organ, but he was very, very important as far as my development goes. But I did start out in organ groups. There was a guy who gave me my first experience playing in an organ trio. He was living in Albany, Georgia. You may know him because he was in Atlanta for a while—this gentleman named Al Rylander.
JGL: I didn’t know about him…
MALONE: There was also another guy—when you were living in Atlanta, did you ever come across Orlando Smith?
JGL: I don’t think so.
MALONE: See, these were two guys who were living in Albany, Georgia at the time. When I was living there as a teenager I got to play with both of them. I got to be a sideman in both of their bands.
JGL: It was a traditional organ trio with guitar and drums?
MALONE: It was organ, guitar and drums…and a horn, maybe a horn player.
JGL: These are gigs you were doing before you came to Atlanta?
MALONE: Yes, before I moved to Atlanta. That’s right. And then, you know, there was also an organ in the church, but it wasn’t jazz. I mean, that’s a whole ‘nother thing.
JGL: That’s a whole other bag.
JGL: Maybe I was wrong about this, but I always thought you viewed playing in an organ trio as sort of a rite of passage, because…it’s like, every guitar player that I ever really held in high esteem, they all did it. Kenny Burrell did it. You did it. I mean, George [Benson] did it. Paying dues with Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, Lonnie Liston Smith, Groove Holmes, Jimmy McGriff…you know, I just feel like a good guitar player has got to have that. It’s like doing a stint in the Army or something like, that—it’s required boot camp; you kinda gotta have it to be complete, no?
MALONE: Well, you know, I never thought about that, but you may be onto something! But here’s one thing I’ll say about playing in an organ trio, especially with somebody who played with the intensity of a Jimmy Smith—you had to match his intensity.
JGL: Well, exactly. That’s what I’m saying—this is where you learn to do that. There’s nothing quite like it.
MALONE: Yeah. When you play in that kind of situation, one thing that you do build up is a certain level of intensity. And then it also teaches you how to comp a certain way—how to do it well.
MALONE: Now comping in an organ trio is a lot different than playing in a trio with, let’s say, piano and bass. It is different. But at the same time, you have to definitely match the intensity of the other guys in the band, especially the organ player. I’m very thankful that I had those experiences. I mean, when I was doing it years ago, when I first started doing it, I never thought of it as a rite of passage. But now that you mentioned that, maybe you’re onto something.
JGL: That kinda leads me to my next question. Based on your lengthy career and wealth of experience and success, do you currently view yourself as an elder statesman?
MALONE: Well, I never thought about myself as an elder statesman. I am becoming older, but you know, Ron Carter’s still around, George Benson’s still around, and Kenny Burrell…for me, those are the elder statesmen, right? I’m just a…you know, I’m still a work in progress. That’s the way I see myself. I mean, I’m a little older than I was when I first came onto the scene thirty-plus years ago, but I’m still a work in progress. I’m still learning, still trying to get better at it, man.
JGL: When I saw you last—I came to see you perform at Smoke in New York City—I asked you back then about your approach to ballads. Nobody else does it quite the way you do. And I think it has to do with the technique that you use in your right hand, especially. But it’s also in your left hand, your voicing of chords and the way you sort of turn your guitar into basically an orchestra.
MALONE: I appreciate the kind words.
JGL: It’s like you have a very special gift with that. I just want to hear what your thoughts about how you develop that particular technique. the last time I heard you, it seemed like you were orchestrating and using even more of the the pinched harmonic things that you do, making a guitar sound almost like a harp. It’s just fantastic.
MALONE: Ok, so you’re mainly talking about solo guitar, right?
MALONE: I think one of the most important things about playing a ballad is knowing the lyrics to them. And the person who pulled my coat to that was Freddy Cole. He told me that a long time ago when I was playing in his band. This was almost 40 years ago, man. He was talking about how important it is to learn the lyrics to those songs. And when you learn those lyrics, either get the sheet music or listen to certain vocalists’ renditions of them. And he mentioned his brother, Nat. He mentioned Sinatra. And he mentioned Ella Fitzgerald. And he mentioned this other singer, Mabel Mercer, who’s not a jazz singer, but she was a cabaret singer. And the reason why he mentioned those specific vocalists is because they don’t do too much embellishment with the melodies. They sing the melodies correctly, and their diction is good. I mean, you listen to Nat King Cole sing a song. There’s no question about what he’s saying, because it’s so clear –he enunciates so clearly, right?
So when I learned how to approach a ballad—well, any song, but especially a ballad—that’s what we’re talking about. I listen to the words. I learned the song. I listen to the story. And I’ll never forget one time I was playing with this singer down in Atlanta, Georgia…we were playing a ballad and I guess I must have played just a little too busily on the song. So after the set was over, we went over to the bar. And this was back then when you could smoke in clubs. And I remember she used to smoke these Mores. Remember those More cigarettes?
JGL: Oh yeah. Those long, skinny, brown ones?
MALONE: Exactly—those long, skinny brown cigarettes. She was smoking her More cigarettes and she was drinking. Her drink was Chivas Regal—Scotch and soda. I remember that, like it was yesterday. She was drinking her drink and she took a drag on a cigarette. And she looked at me—and she was very beautiful too, man. She looked at me and she said, ‘you know, baby, when you play those ballads, you gotta treat those ballads like a kiss!’ Which really, you know…when she said that, that intrigued me! I said, ‘well, what do you mean?’ And she said, ‘sweet, deep, and slow.’
MALONE: Now, only an older, mature woman can put it to you like that. You know what I mean?
JGL: Oh yeah…yeah.
MALONE: Nobody in the world can put like that except an older mature woman. But that’s what she told me: ‘You gotta treat those ballads, like a kiss: sweet, deep, and slow.’ And I never forgot that.
JGL: Now, who was this that said that to you?
MALONE: Her name was Gina Hill…she was a local vocalist. I used to play with her in places like the Living Room Lounge at Scatz—you remember Scatz? It used to be called 200 South…that’s where I met Joe Jennings, and I also met Danny Harper…And Lee John’s Nitery? Or The Crescendo Lounge? Lamar’s Regal Room? Marko’s?
JGL: This is in Atlanta?
MALONE: This is in Atlanta, Georgia.
JGL: Oh, I thought this was in New York.
MALONE: No, no, no, no, no. Atlanta.
JGL: Oh. Those were all places was before my time.
MALONE: Yeah, it really it set me on a path, hanging out with Freddy and just, hearing that from the singer.
JGL: Okay, next question: As you get older, what has changed in your perception of the role of the guitar and your place in it over the years?
MALONE: Well. My perception of the guitar has not changed. It’s still the same as it always has been, which is: it can function as a horn, it can function as part of the ensemble. I think that’s good, but it can also accompany…one of my favorite things to do is to accompany. And when you’re accompanying—and I’m not just talking about four-to-the bar, Freddie Green style, because that’s not the only way to play rhythm guitar—there’s several ways to play rhythm guitar in country bands, in gospel music, in funk, in rock. That hasn’t changed. I mean, the guitar can still serve as part of a foundation. The bass, the drums, the guitar—that’s the foundation in a group…and it’s been that way. And I don’t see it changing, but it can also function as part of the ensemble too, just like horn players, playing individual parts. So my perception about the guitar has not changed. I’ve always felt that it could function in those areas.
JGL: Speaking of individual parts, how often do you encounter situations where you have to use sheet music for charts?
MALONE: Well, more people now are writing more specific parts for guitar players—which brings me to the importance of knowing how to read music. And I’m not the best reader in the world, but I can read music.
I’ve been in situations, like on recordings or on gigs, where there were specific things that the guitar had to play and that’s what the arranger or the band leader wanted. So I had to learn those parts. And that’s why I always stress the importance of knowing how to do that. And I’m still trying to improve in that area, but I think that those factors are very important for being a guitar player and having it together in that sense. You know, Johnny Smith was a great reader. Barry Galbraith was a great reader. I’m just blessed with good ears, but there’s only so much you can hear, right? But when the band leader puts that music in front of you, sometimes it’s necessary to be able to read it—that’s very important.
JGL: So that kind of leads to another question that’s kinda related, which is: when you practice, what do you practice? How do you approach practicing? When do you practice?
MALONE: Well, I don’t do it as much as I used to, but I still do practice and it depends on where I’m weak. And, like I said before, I’m still trying, still getting the sight reading together. I still work on that from time to time. For me, it’s mainly about developing good time, touch, and sound—those are things that I don’t think you ever stop working on when it comes to making the music feel good.
JGL: So how do you approach developing or sustaining or maintaining a certain kind of touch? Do you experiment with it or do you just hone in on what you have already been developing?
MALONE: Well, yeah, it’s that aspect, but at the same time, you know, we’re always experimenting with picks, speakers, amps, the placement of the amp on the stage…because where you put the amp on the stage has an effect on how you hear it and how you address the instrument physically. So I’m still tweaking, you know. I’ve been playing the guitar for a long time, but I’m still tweaking those little areas, man.
MALONE: And one more thing before I forget it: Even something as simple as the length of the guitar strap—how the guitar hangs off your body, how it feels draped across your shoulders—can be a factor to be tweaked. Because you wanna be as comfortable as possible. Right now, I’m playing a smaller guitar these days. I played my Gibson L5’s and Super 400’s, and I love the sound of those guitars, but you really have to work physically hard to play those instruments. So right now I’m playing a smaller guitar.
JGL: What are you playing?
MALONE: I’ve been taking it on the road with me. In fact, I’m taking it out tomorrow. It was a guitar that was made for me by Roger Sadowsky, it’s a semi-hollow body, which is slightly larger than a Les Paul, but it’s hollow. I started out on playing on a [Gibson] 335. My first electric guitar was a 335.
MALONE: Yeah. Well, actually my first electric guitar was a Teisco (Del Rey). But then I gravitated to a 335—they’re very comfortable to play. And over time, you know, things have improved as far as getting the sound out of those semi-hollow guitars.
JGL: Is this a custom-made guitar model for you?
MALONE: No, it’s not a custom-made guitar, it’s just one that Roger made. I went by his shop and I played it and I said,’ man, I want one of these, ’cuz it just felt so good. And I can get the same sound out of that guitar that I can get out of my L5. This model is the A552, made in 2008. It’s comfortable and it’s easy to travel with. And I don’t get a whole lot of grief from the airlines.
JGL: How long have you been with Sadowsky?
MALONE: Only since I’ve had that guitar. I don’t endorse them, but I do like the guitars. We worked out a nice little deal, you know. I’ve been playing this guitar about maybe 13 years now.
MALONE: Yeah, I got it about 13 years ago. And I started taking it on the road with me about a year and a half ago. I like the guitar. It gives me what I need.
JGL: What kind of picks are you using these days?
MALONE: I’m experimenting with different types of picks. For a while, I was using a 2.mm. D’Andrea…it was a very thick pick. I used it with really thick strings and high action. But I was having to work too hard with that high action. But I’ve always liked the Fender mediums.
MALONE: Yeah. I like those.
JGL: I like Dunlop Jazz II picks.
MALONE: I was using those for a while too. Like I said, you know, I’m constantly experimenting with picks, ‘cause I’m still trying to perfect…well…you never really perfect anything, but I’m still trying to improve the feel and the tone. And the sound.
JGL: So, switching gears again a little bit, let me ask you this question—What is your view about the role of jazz guitar in academia? Can jazz be taught?
MALONE: It’s funny you asked that, because I just started teaching in a school.
JGL: Well, I’m really glad to hear that.
MALONE: I just started teaching at William Paterson College. I go in there one day a week because they’d been after me for a while and I just never…it was just never something that I was ever interested in. But now that I’m doing it, I like it. Because a lot of people—these young kids today—they don’t have the opportunity to get it the way that guys of my generation and before me got it.
JGL: Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m asking about!
MALONE: So, I think it’s good that they have people like myself. Geoffrey Keezer teaches there. Mulgrew Miller was teaching out there for a while. Rufus Reid taught bass there. Kenny Burrell was over at UCLA. Benny Green taught at a school in Michigan. There are so many other fine examples of veteran jazz players teaching today at colleges and universities all across the country. So I think when they get people who’ve had the actual experience and teaching the kids in those schools, I think that’s good for them because we can give them inspiration.
JGL: So what’s your overall teaching style?
MALONE: What I do is, I just sit and talk to them. I wanna find out what they want, what they need. And I ask them questions. I wanna find out about them as people also.
JGL: Ron Carter also is a teacher at Manhattan School of Music, you know…
MALONE: Ron Carter. Yeah, that’s right, I can’t leave the ‘old man’ out! He did it for a while. So I think it’s good. I think it’s possible to inspire these kids to wanna play this music, because they wanna play it anyway. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be enrolled in the school in the first place.
MALONE: Because they’re trying to get it however way they can get it. And I think that’s a good thing. And plus—another thing that I do—I sit down and I play with the kids. They need to have the experiences playing with an experienced musician. I sit down because a lot of them, they only play with their peers. And that can be good, but only up to a point—because a lot of times, it’s a case of the blind leading the blind, they don’t, they don’t really know what to do. They have good intentions, but they don’t really know what they’re doing.
JGL: How did your William Paterson gig come about?
MALONE: Dr. David Demsey asked me about it a long time ago. He and Bill Charlap were out there running the music department. So I just said, ‘well, you know, what the heck, why not?’
JGL: Were you not in interested in before?
MALONE: I was on the road a lot. I like being on the road, but then, you know we’re not on the road as much as we were. I mean, I still go on the road, but we’re not as busy traveling as we were because of the pandemic. So I said, ‘well, what the hell, may as well try something different.’ And, besides, I’m older now. And I really don’t have the interest to be on the road the way I was before. I still love it. But I’m getting—let’s face it, I’m still strong, but I’m not young and strong anymore.
MALONE: So you just have to be realistic about those things, man. So I do it one day a week, which is perfect for me. When I’m working with these students, a lot of them play with their peers, people in their own age group, but they don’t know what they’re doing. So having someone who’s had a considerable amount of experience teaching in the schools, we just steer them in the right direction. because you’ll be surprised that there’s a lot of music that they haven’t heard yet.
MALONE: So I take recordings and I play them for them. I mean, I sit down and I play with them, but I play recordings for them. And it’s so gratifying for me as an older person. ‘Cause I got like 20 and 30 years on some of these people, and in some cases, 40 years. And so as an older guy, it’s so gratifying for me to see their faces light up when they hear something that they have not heard before.
JGL: That’s so cool, man. I love it. Welcome to my world!
MALONE: Yeah, I know you’ve been teaching up there in Kansas for quite a while now.
MALONE: So, you know, I like it. And I think the music can be taught. Well, you can inspire the kids. I don’t wanna use that word “taught.” Cause some things can’t be taught, but if the person loves it enough and they’re inspired, they’re gonna seek it out. They’re gonna look for it.
JGL: Now here’s a question I don’t think I’ve ever asked you in all the time I’ve been knowing you: Are you teaching any private guitar lessons to people?
JGL: Have you ever done it?
MALONE: I’ve had people come up to the house…and we keep it casual. I cook for them. ‘Cause this is the way I learned. I’ve never taken formal lessons. I mean, I’ve been around George Benson several times and I never asked George to show me anything. But what I do, whenever I’m around him, if he feels like playing the guitar, I don’t ask him any questions. I just sit. I watch him. If you got any kind of sense, you’re gonna pick up something from that, watching him play, just being around him.
JGL: that’s a revered, traditional, old school way of learning that doesn’t seem to happen as much anymore; It’s not as available to these younger cats…
MALONE: But see, that’s the way I learned how to play the guitar. Listen, man. I’ve been to Jimmy Smith’s house. When he was living in Tennessee, I would go to his house and he would have his B3 organ set up in his garage and he would just play, man. And I was…I’d be so flabbergasted. I remember he once played something when I was there. He was in there on his organ playing, man—playing things that you don’t ever hear him do on records. And I almost started crying. ‘cuz it was so it was so deep, man.
MALONE: I mean, just being in situations like that, where you can see a master at work, that’s more precious than anything you can get in a school or out of a book.
JGL: Yeah, that’s right.
MALONE: So whenever kids or young players come to my house—and this has happened before—I don’t teach them in the formal sense. I don’t charge them any money. We just sit around. We talk, we watch music videos. We listen to recordings. I cook for them. And we play and we get something from each other.
JGL: I just…I can’t even imagine the kid that’s lucky enough to have that experience. That’s just wonderful. Russell, that answer that you just gave me is probably one of the most soulful things I’ve ever heard you say in the whole time I’ve known you.
MALONE: Oh, thank you.
JGL: I mean it sincerely, man. You know, we’ve been known each other a long time, but that answer…
MALONE: We go back some decades. That’s for sure.
JGL: What you just said was really beautiful, man. This teaching thing—it’s like a side of you that I’ve never seen or heard from you before.
MALONE: Well, you know, I also approach it from the perspective of a parent. I’m also a parent. And these kids, they’re young enough to be my kids, man. And that’s the way I see them—as my children.
JGL: Yep. Absolutely.
MALONE: Yeah. And one thing about being a parent: You gotta be firm with them, but at the same time, you can’t be so firm to the fact that…you know, people talk about ‘tough love,’…tough love is good, but you can’t let tough love overshadow nurturing. You gotta nurture these people, man.
JGL: We’ve covered a lot, and there’s a lot more to cover, but Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you wanna get into?
MALONE: We’ll save that for the autobiography.
JGL: Indeed, we will!
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