Taking Liberties

It happens just a few times in your life—you’re going about your business, playing a gig, doing a little woodshedding, trading some licks with another musician, seeing some live music, or perhaps reading GP, when ka-pow! Out of the sky, a blast of insight hits you that forever alters your perception of the guitar. We’re not talking about minor moments of clarity such as “I finally understand Coltrane changes” or “Wow, I should have popped in some P-90s years ago,” but major revelations that change your life-mission as a guitarist, musician, and human being. While epiphanies of this magnitude are indeed rare (you can probably count the ones you’ve experienced so far on one hand), the beautiful part is that they can occur at any time—even years after you’ve established yourself as a prolific and world-famous guitarist. Just ask Russell Malone.
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“A major turning point for me,” shares Malone, “was some years ago when I was in L.A. to do a show with Harry Connick Jr.. At the suggestion of [bassist] Ray Brown, I looked up a veteran guitar player named John Collins [featured in the January ’85 GP] who had played with Nat King Cole, Fletcher Henderson, Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and others. When I first met him, he seemed to be a little bit

suspicious of me and said, ‘Play something.’ At the time I was only interested in playing bebop like a horn player, so I played him some lines. He said, ‘Let me see that.’ I handed him my guitar and he played a solo version of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life.’ Now, if you know this song, you know it’s harmonically involved and not one of those tunes you can fake—you can’t just ‘hear’ your way through the changes. You gotta know it. And he knew it inside out, top to bottom, backwards and forwards, and he had all these different things happening simultaneously—sometimes three lines working at the same time. It was incredible.

“Seeing how amazed I was, he told me that one thing that really disappoints him about younger players is that they’re not really getting the most out of the guitar. ‘Playing single-note lines like a horn is part of playing jazz,’ he said, ‘but if that’s all you concentrate on, you’re really selling the instrument short.’ Then he started talking about how when he was a young man he saw Andrés Segovia perform, and how Segovia got all this beautiful music out of the guitar, like an orchestra. He talked about players like Johnny Smith and George Van Eps—guys who really played the whole guitar—and that’s what really got me thinking differently about my music. That’s when I really started to concentrate on my solo playing.”

Sure, Malone is well known for his work both as a solo artist (his latest album is Playground, available on MaxJazz records) and as an accompanist (he’s teamed with everyone from Natalie Cole and Diana Krall to Branford Marsalis and David Grusin). But sit down with Malone face to face, and from the moment he plugs in and begins magically weaving the best traits of Johnny Smith and George Benson into a seamless tapestry of intertwining melodies and chords, it becomes immediately obvious that, like Collins before him, Malone—despite his many badges of success—is one of the most underrated guitarists in jazz. He has transformed his fretboard into an orchestra, and the musical examples he shares in this lesson can help other players striving to do the same.

Breaking Down the Blocks

“I had a love for music years before I even knew what a guitar was,” says Malone, recalling his youth in Albany, Georgia. “Then, one day in church, a gentleman brought in an electric guitar and started to play. I knew right then that would be the vehicle I would use to express myself musically. I have definitely taken a lot of inspiration from other instruments—I listen to a lot of piano players, and I’m a huge Art Tatum fan—and when you borrow things from other instruments, it gives you another approach to take on the guitar. But you have to realize that whatever sound you’re trying to create, it still has to come out on the guitar. A love and appreciation for music must come first; a love for your instrument second.

“When most jazz players play solo guitar, they don’t get the most out of the instrument because a lot of what they do is block chords,” continues Malone, demonstrating the block-chord approach with Ex. 1, a harmonized melody inspired by the opening measures of the Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach standard, “Yesterdays.” “There’s nothing wrong with this harmonically, but there’s really not a lot of movement happening. It’s just a series of chords. Here’s a more Art Tatum-inspired arrangement

[Ex. 2]. It’s the same melody, pretty much, but it’s got a lot of decoration and is much livelier.”

Check Your Head

“Whatever I do with a song, I always remain conscious of the melody,” says Malone. “A lot of guys get so caught up in restructuring and reharmonizing that they’re no longer playing the song. I never approach the song as a blowing vehicle. I always try to keep the melody strong, no matter what’s going on between the notes [Ex. 3]. When you really know the song you can take some liberties. You can start using your imagination—start trusting your imagination—and leave block chords altogether [Ex. 4]. One guitarist who’s astounding at this stuff is Gene Bertoncini. Check him out. He plays every week in Manhattan.”

The Groove Tube

“Seeing Chet Atkins on TV when I was a kid was amazing,” says Malone, who also cites Hank Garland, Johnny Smith, Wes Montgomery, Bucky Pizzarelli, Tal Farlow, and Jack Petersen as major influences. “Things were different then, because you could turn on the television and actually see musicians playing. And I have to mention catching George Benson on TV when I was just 12—that’s when I knew I really had to get serious about playing the guitar. Even at that age I had sense enough to know that while what he was doing looked effortless, it was obvious he didn’t learn to play that way by accident.”

Speaking of generating elaborate guitar textures with seemingly effortless aplomb, Examples 5 and 6 capture two nimble and graceful phrases that flow nicely once you get the moves mastered, yet are most impressive because, like some of the other examples in this lesson, they seem to have been improvised on the fly. “There are no shortcuts,” says Malone. “If you really want to be a good musician, you have to sit down and spend the time.”

Too Legit to Quit

“I love this instrument,” says Malone. “I love just having it in my arms. To this day, it still heals me, and I don’t think about anything when I’m playing it. I know a lot of guys—and you hear this s**t from a lot of jazz players—who talk about the guitar like it’s inferior to other instruments. Wynton Marsalis once told me, ‘Man, I don’t like guitar but I like you.’ That’s almost like saying, ‘I don’t like black people, but you’re all right’—a backhanded compliment.”

If there is one way to shatter such prejudices against the guitar with a single phrase of music, it’s with stunning epilogues such as Ex. 7, a kaleidoscopic Russell Malone ending that will work on just about any tune in E major. “The only thing that’s more disheartening than hearing other instrumentalists berate the guitar is hearing other guitar players speak as if the guitar is not a legitimate instrument in jazz,” continues Malone. “The guitar has already been legitimized. As far as I’m concerned, Wes, Django, and Charlie Christian legitimized it decades ago.”

Further Enrichment

“Another important realization I had was one night after a show with a local rock band in Atlanta in the mid ’80s,” shares Malone. “I had become very bored with the band because I was still in my jazz snob days, but, nonetheless, I had given it my all that night to make the gig happen. And as I was packing up my guitar, this kid with spiky hair who was all dressed up in leather and pierced everywhere—years before piercing became fashionable—walked up to me and told me that he really liked the way I played. He then told me he’d been having major problems at home with his parents, but added, ‘You really touched me. I was planning to go home tonight and kill myself, but your music really healed me.’ That’s why at every gig—even if it’s not the most fun situation, or even if it’s not that happening musically—I still try to play my best, because you never know who you’re touching. I learned a lesson that night—that being able to enrich people’s lives is one of the reasons we are here as musicians.”

Russell Malone’s new live album, recorded at the Jazz Standard in New York, will be released in June.