Jazz Notes Intel: Guitarist Russell Malone Gets Saluted; Dafnis Prieto Big Band Latin Marvel; Roots Flair With Marcia Ball and Irresistible Trio Pianism by Django Bates
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, June 8, 2018
Maestro guitarist Russell Malone thanks six-string elder Kenny Burrell for giving him invaluable advice thirty years ago to advance his career. “Kenny told me to always be consistent,” the 54-year-old Malone said in a phone conversation from his New Jersey home shortly after returning from headlining a doubleheader of jazz festivals in Jacksonville, FL and Atlanta. “You’ve got to always play well and remember that people fly or drive to pay money to see you. For me the most important thing is to consistently reach the listener. A lot of musicians start out working to gain the respect of their peers, but after a while they try to live up to someone else’s idea of what jazz music is. That’s a recipe for disaster.”
Since Malone arrived in New York from his native Atlanta in 1985, he has charismatically become a major guitar figure here, whether as a sideman or as a leader (including his captivating, soulful, melodic and sweetly downhome quartet album, Time for the Dancers, released late last year on the High Note label). He’s recorded fourteen albums as the sole leader since his 1992 eponymous album on Columbia and has served as a significant sideman for such marquee artists as B-3 organ legend Jimmy Smith, Harry Connick Jr. (who was instrumental in getting the guitarist his first recording contract), Diana Krall (in the early days of her burgeoning career) and Ron Carter (his energetic Striker Trio).
Throughout his career, Malone’s true-to-myself wisdom has been lauded and appropriately is celebrated this year by Jack Kleinsinger, a former New York assistant attorney general who became a vital jazz impresario presenting his unique four-show Highlights in Jazz concert series. In its 46th season, it’s the longest-running jazz concert series in the city. Launched in 1973, he has produced more than 300 concerts with such classic jazz stars as Zoot Sims, Roy Haynes, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Dave Brubeck, Billy Taylor, Woody Herman and Billy Higgins, among many others.
Each year for the season’s finale, Kleinsinger pays tribute to an alive-and-well artist. This year on Thursday, June 21 at the Borough of Manhattan Community College’s Tribeca Performing Arts Center, the honor goes to Malone. “Russell is the youngest artist ever saluted,” he said, running down a long list of former honorees, including his very first, Lionel Hampton, and Malone’s mentor Burrell. “When I was beginning to do concerts, I was thinking of how tired I was going to memorials for jazz stars who had passed away. That’s when I started doing the salutes, bringing together different styles across the generations.”
Kleinsinger’s criteria? The honoree has history with the series (for example, just this year in February Malone appeared in a show headlined by the Bucky Pizzarelli Trio) and has a respected friendship with fellow musicians. “I was surprised when Jack called me about this salute,” Malone said. “I asked him if he were serious. He said, yes, so I told him I’d take it. You’ve got to pick the flowers while you’re still living. I feel very honored. A lot of people have been listening. I’ve had a few hits and misses, but my listeners have never given up on me.”
With Kleinsinger’s support, Malone has assembled an impressive lineup for the show. Along for the ride will be his quartet, comprising pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Willie Jones III. The concert will also include such masters as saxophonists Houston Person and George Coleman (a late sub for Jimmy Heath, who is ill) as well as renowned drummer Lewis Nash, creative vibraphonist Steve Nelson and steady trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. To round out the band Malone has invited another virtuoso guitarist, Gene Bertoncini.
In a Facebook post on May 19, Malone commented on seeing Bertoncini play the previous evening at the 55 Bar in the Village. “I was inspired to spend the day listening to him, and a few other solo guitar masters,” Malone shared. “The thing that Gene, George Van Eps, Lenny Breau, Johnny Smith, Ted Green, Jimmy Wyble, Steve Herberman, Joe Pass and Chet Atkins all have in common is that they always put the song first. Sure, there’s a lot going on, such as lines moving along with the bass and harmony. It’s incredible! But what makes them so special is that they’re always so musical. They have the ability to play a whole lot of guitar without sounding as if they are trying to play a ‘whole lot of guitar.’ The music is at the forefront, not the information. It’s fun to be blown away from time to time. But the feeling of being enchanted lasts longer.”
Even though he had known of Bertoncini’s work on record (specifically his duo sessions with bassist Michael Moore), Malone recalls that the first time he saw him live was in 1994 at the bistro Le Madeleine on West 43rd Street (shuttered in 2008). The recommendation to go there came from his future band leader Ron Carter. “Ron told me Gene had a steady gig there playing solo guitar,” Malone said. “He told me to just go there and listen and play close attention to how he gets around his guitar. Without a lot of flash, I discovered him to be a harmonic wizard. After that I went to see him whenever he played. That’s the best thing about New York. There are all kinds of music and all kinds of musicians.”
Malone admits that he’s taken his criticism with stride. He remembers when he linked up with then-upstart Krall and received criticism from other jaded musicians. “These guys told me that I was much better than this,” he said. “They were discouraging me, and it was even toxic. But I said, hey, I’m working. I count my blessings. I’ve got a gig, and I always play better when I know I can pay my bills. There is no virtue in being unemployed. Plus, as a sideman I get the opportunity to bring what I can to the music to enhance their vision.”
As a leader, Malone embraces all styles, including country, funk, gospel, soul and blues, and he’s happy to create that stew. “I tell young people to not relegate themselves to just one style,” he said. “But I’m hearing a lot of narrow-minded young people. I say, don’t suppress what environment you came from. Don’t try to run away from it. I grew up hearing all kinds of music, and the older I get the more I’m incorporating those influences. I always remain curious.”
As for the Highlights in Jazz show, Malone said, “I’ve had some great sideman gigs, but you don’t really hear Russell Malone until you hear the Russell Malone band. We’re going to show you a good time.”
Kleinsinger guarantees it and notes that often surprise guests show up, even bringing their instruments along. They are more than welcome. All 45 years of his shows have been archived by the University of North Florida, which bestowed on him an honorary doctorate for his series in 2017. You can hear concerts and five-minute video interviews with Kleinsinger about each show by clicking here.
For more action from Malone and his quartet, they are playing the Village Vanguard July 10-15.
SCENE OF THE UNHEARD: DAFNIS PRIETO BIG BAND LATIN MARVEL
Unheard by the population at large but gradually gaining superstar jazz recognition, drummer/arranger/leader Dafnis Prieto squeezed his 17-piece big band onto Jazz Standard’s stage on June 7 to exhilaratingly celebrate the release of his first big band album, Back to the Sunset. It was the first night of a four-day explosion there (shows continue through June 10). The house was packed, and there was a long line outside waiting for the second set of the evening. At the first show, Prieto (a 2011 MacArthur Fellow) did not disappoint, leading the polyrhythmic charge into an hour-long showcase of his brilliantly arranged music. With a slight touch of salsa in the mix, the Cuban-born, New York-based Prieto created a wall of brass sound with his band of rich-toned trumpets, trombones and saxophones that flowed with the currents of his rhythms. It was pure big band glory as the ensemble fired through the album’s lead-off tune, “Una Vez Más,” followed by the unpredictable “The Sooner the Better” that featured high-charged tenor saxophone solos by Peter Apfelbaum and Joel Frahm. There was a heralding of trombone gusto on “Out of the Bone” (with trombone conversations throughout) and a quieting beauty of the “Back to the Sunset” bolero dedicated to two of Prieto’s inspirations (Henry Threadgill and Andrew Hill). Before launching into the set final, the exciting “Two for One,” Prieto paused and proudly praised his band: “It’s so great to hear their fantastic sounds of your dreams.” The piece went into orbit with a horn-fueled brio that was then fulfilled with a fast and furious drum solo that climaxed the set. The crowd wanted more, but Prieto, his shirt soaked through, told his fans to come back after their break and then advertised the table in the back where he was selling his DIY CDs recorded on his 10-year-old indie label, Dafnison Music. He quipped, “I don’t need anyone to make me poor. I can do that pretty well by myself.”
THREE DOT LOUNGE . . .
While jazz today seems to be evolving into a genre-agnostic state, even the contrarians agree that jazz partly emerged from the blues…So, bring on the broiling stuff, courtesy of the rollicking pianist/singer/songwriter Marcia Ball (inspired back in the day by none other than Professor Longhair) with her new album, Shine Bright, on Alligator Records…She’s the real blues deal (she’s got the Grammys to prove it) who gets funky, rowdy, rocking with her spirited soul and smoldering blues…named the 2018 Texas State Musician of the Year, Ball likes to party as well as question in her originals, saying the secret is “to set the political songs to a good dance beat”…Even though pianist Django Bates’s trio Belòved delivered its sublime album The Study of Touch late last year on ECM Records, the music is timeless…with songs of brevity and playful short stories…the group takes its journey through inventive pockets of dreamy melancholy, arresting beauty, playful speed, tinges of blues and deep-spirited balladry…and how about a quickly slanted swing through Charlie Parker’s “Passport,” the only non-original…Bates once vowed he would never form a trio (what new could he bring to the format?) but changed his mind when he started improvising with bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Peter Bruin who wonderfully re-envision the compositions…Belòved makes a rare U.S. appearance at Jazz Standard for two nights, June 19-20.
Cover: Russell Malone; photo: Chris Drukker.