As sophisticated sideman to both Harry Connick Jnr. and more recently Diana Krall, Georgia-born Malone, with his cultured playing, has found his way into more homes than most jazz guitarists manage. Presumably because of this, Verve label boss Tommy LiPuma has not only given Malone a more lavish setting than is usual but produced the album himself. Maybe he sees another George Benson, an artist he also promoted, in the offing. He may well be right. The romantic in me hopes that he simply recognises a superior talent when he hears it.
Make no mistake, this is a jazz guitarist of the very first rank. Though the dreamy, candle-lit atmosphere of the album will be too smooth for some tastes, there won’t be much better ballad playing heard this year. Malone has a gentle, bluesy tone and his style is something of a combination of Wes Montgomery, Benson and Joe Pass. The tempo is as slow as it could be, yet swings just enough to hold the attention. This may be what is disparagingly known as Dinner Jazz but the food would have to be of the finest and most delicate flavours to live up to Heartstring’s elegance and style.
Malone’s accomplished and highly polished technique is wrapped in the most delightful orchestral arrangements. Yes, jazz with strings, folks. Don’t head for the hills just yet, though. The arrangers are the best in the field—Dori Caymmi, Pete Broadbent and, most impressive of the three, Johnny Mandel. The legendary Mandel, one of the great film and popular song composers, has a long jazz pedigree and his work on the two opening tracks is little short of sublime. Though best known for “Shadow of Your Smile” and “The Theme from M. A. S. H.”, former-trombonist Mandel knows the tradition inside out and his contributions to Milt Jackson’s “Heartstrings” and Irving Berlin’s “How About Me” are achingly beautiful.
It doesn’t hurt the cause either having musicians of the caliber of Kenny Barron, Christian McBride and Tain Watts as your group. All stars in their own right, none of them are usually associated with anything so subdued as this project. Barron makes some telling statements, his solo on the title track is a gem, but stays pretty much in the background. McBride reins in his funky side and Watts (brushes only, no less) will surprise many, who know him for his powerhouse rhythmic sense, with the subtlety of his touch. Subtlety, in fact, is the keyword for every aspect of the record. That prevents the tunes tumbling into the realm of schmaltz.
I can’t praise the opener, “Heartstrings” too highly. It always was one of Jackson’s most perfect pieces. Memories of Montgomery are bound to be roused but not even Wes produced so flawless and poised a take on blues balladry as the one here. It is one of those pieces that you can’t imagine being handled better. Guitar and strings combine to produce a tenderness and poignancy of the sort rarely encountered these days. Everything else on the record comes close but does not quite match this discreet masterpiece.
Even enthusiasts like myself must admit that some of the numbers melt into each other. This is fine for consistency of mood but the absence of anything remotely upbeat might deter some, especially a younger audience. Nonetheless, the standard of performance and the caliber of the material more than compensate. Highlights, for me, are “Handful of Stars” and “Why Try to Change Me Now”, both very haunting, although there is little to choose between any of the tunes. Anne Murray’s “You Needed Me” is a little too “pop” in this company, perhaps. The cleverest playing, and the closest to showing-off that Malone gets, can be found on an intricate version of “Wind in the Willow”. The only stylistic outsider is the closing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. The traditional spiritual is played almost as a solo piece and with depth and sincerity. I suspect the song means more than interesting chord changes to Malone.
In the end it is a question of whether an album of laid-back, lush and slightly melancholy jazz guitar appeals or repels. If it does sound attractive then you will hear no better example of the art than that practiced on this session. Malone is no less a player than the greats who inspired him. He has other moods but has chosen to fully explore one on Heartstrings. I find the poetry of the clean lines and the blue smokiness with which he infuses each melody absolutely captivating. I can’t get over how well quartet and strings interact (apparently most songs were done in one take!).
This will sell in reasonable quantity—largely as easy-listening. It is actually something more than that. It is a well-crafted tribute to the ballad side of the American songwriting tradition. Jazz sensibilities are firmly positioned within that tradition and in this set. Relaxing it most certainly is, but the emotions are valid and artfully expressed. Candle rather than neon lit it may be, but if this gets dismissed as bland then we are become a very coarsened people indeed.