Benny Green and Russell Malone: Jazz at the Bistro

[16 April 2003]

By Robert R. Calder

Benny Green, Russell Malone: Live and Together

Benny Green‘s recent solo piano CD continued to indicate something of the range to be expected of him though still a young pianist. Here, the emphasis is on duet, and he has adapted, not to Russell Malone‘s guitar playing but to the duo they are together. Had it been made, the recording of the late Tiny Grimes in duo with Hank Jones would have been a handy comparison, though here duties of extreme delicacy are filled by the guitarist.

The duo’s perfection is in an individual repertoire; chosen from an unusual wide range (Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley included), every written item is tuned perfectly to the four hands. Mellow is a good word for the music, a word less wisely applied to themselves (as it might have been) by some St. Louis citizens in the venue on nights this depiction of a live set was recorded. Just now and then I don’t suppose those patrons knew (any more than the CD listener can) quite why one and another of them started clapping when he or she did. Fresh air can at times be nearly a draught; and there can be problems with live performances. Equally some recordings of live performances manage quite extraordinarily to capture an occasion, and by choosing from tapes of several successive nights, this CD has managed to present, without longueurs, the feel and stuff of a real complete night’s gig. I really can’t believe the duo had rehearsed the performance wherein playing “Killing Me Softly” Malone suddenly feels like pleasing himself with a segue into “How Deep Is Your Love”, and Green goes with him all the way into that question. It’s not hard to understand the depth of interest each has in the other’s playing.

A dedication to both musicians’ “dear friend and teacher” the late Ray Brown is noteworthy, suggesting the inspiration of their magical rhythmic pulse. I’ve heard too little of Russell Malone to say about him, but I know Benny Green keeps getting better. I don’t miss the sound of a bass, its feel is certainly implied, internalised by these men (in another sense we of course all miss Ray Brown). In this very distinctive sounding unit’s wholly fresh repertoire, “Tale of the Fingers” (by another master bassist, the late Paul Chambers) settles in perfectly. The potential of Joe Raposo’s music was realised some time back in a piano solo performance of “Rubber Ducky” by the late Dick Wellstood, a distinctive stylist Benny Green might like to check up on. Raposo’s “Sing” inspires the duo for nearly six minutes. This is delight music, and to round off the set, first there’s Malone introducing the audience to what Green can do without him (on a tune of Green’s own) and Green introducing a guitar solo “Hand-Told Stories”, composed by Malone and dedicated to the divine Tommy Flanagan. Friendship endures.

Then there’s an encore, another (another night’s?) performance of Billy Strayhorn’s “The Intimacy of the Blues”. Perhaps there’s a lot of Strayhorn in the musical palette of this pair? The encore has rather less to do with Strayhorn’s theme than the performance earlier on the disc; clearly mere routine is not for either of these men, each of them reaping the harvest of having found (Wellstood’s phrase) “a wonderful way of playing”, whether piano or guitar or duets. There are hints of a not yet realised definitive performance of that Strayhorn item in the version earlier on—good gigs usually indicate some kinds of growth. But the one they go out on is really just a workout swinging the blues, such as Malone’s earlier brother in the muse Tiny Grimes did. Malone reminds me of that late neglected guitarist not by sounding terribly like him, but by bringing him to mind as part of one big warm feeling. These are young men, their music is fresh and itself carries a lot of experience, a great deal of room for discovery. The terms “gratitude”, and “peace and blessings” feature in the signoffs at the end of each man’s little memoir of the few nights gig on the CD box. Hear, hear.

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