When he slows down, Russell Malone shows a depth and fullness in his guitar playing that is sometimes missing from his more up-tempo, flashier numbers. At moments like those, if he were playing while you were having dinner, you’d want to stop, listen, and perhaps hold a lover’s hand. In other places on this album, however, you’d just keep right on eating while he trailed away in the background.
When Malone was 12, he saw George Benson playing guitar on television and was inspired to become a jazz guitarist. Malone’s sound is more percussive and less liquid than is Benson’s, and his approach seems to be a little purer jazz, but the influence can still be heard today. Like Benson’s recent album, this is an agreeable collection of mostly instrumental songs that at their best are warm and intimate, and at worst are pointless noodling. For some reason, and it will probably take a musician to explain, the guitar seems to lend itself to both exploration and getting lost; the solo that goes on so long your mind wanders…but the funny thing is, though Benson is clearly the better player and singer, this is the better album. It focuses more on the playing than on trying to create an instantly dated, ephemeral “contemporary” sound around it.
Like many of his fathers in jazz, Malone has an appreciation for the classics, and not to be unfair, that’s a good thing. Because his three originals here show him to be nowhere near the league of the standard writers he covers. Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie” is one of the two best tunes on the album, joined by a version of Irving Berlin’s “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” sung by Malone with quiet beauty, with just his guitar for accompaniment.
Of course, it’s hardly a sign of gross incompetence not to be able to write as well as these men—few people can. But Malone simply must be docked a star (if I gave star ratings, that is) for the composition “Soulful Kisses,” which keeps threatening to turn into the Entertainment Tonight theme.
As a player, Malone has an easy to listen to sound, even if it is not always as lively as one might like. The other players on the album (piano, bass, drums) turn in performances that are undistinguished. They make a good background for Malone’s better flights, but never show much buoyancy themselves.
Finally, this album is pleasant but scarcely indispensable. But an all-ballad album, alternating instrumentals and vocals, might not be a bad idea.