Benny Green / Russell Malone: Bluebird

Benny Green / Russell Malone

This CD is a nice album of very straightforward mainstream jazz showing its roots in the whole history of the electric guitar in jazz. Nat Cole, who was a great jazz pianist quite apart from any gifts as a singer, led an early piano, guitar, and bass trio. So for a time did Art Tatum. Along with especially Hank Jones and to some extent Erroll Garner, both these pianists were major influences on Oscar Peterson, and their trios had considerable influence on the trio he formed with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis. Peterson was a major influence on Benny Green and on the earlier and comparable Monty Alexander, both of whom worked with Brown, as indeed did Russell Malone, a guitarist of considerable technical accomplishment not afraid to demonstrate a considerable variety of approach.

His penchant for variety is demonstrated in his performances in duo with Green, where he has lots of unshowy means of accompaniment and support behind the pianist. He perhaps enables Green to distinguish himself, here, from an early obviously virtuoso style; and to play with an at times startling directness. I don’t suppose even Green has Peterson’s (metaphorical) fingers; I do know that, like Alexander, he has become a more distinctive and distinguished performer after beginnings — I remember a trio with Ben Wolfe on bass and Carl Allen on drums — a little short on musical detail.

It’s probably been relatively easy for the technician to pick up a version of jazz piano founded on the limited coverage afforded by the media — big names like Peterson and Dave Brubeck and Erroll Garner and George Shearing (who says Hank Jones is still his mentor) — without having heard the sort of range of players audible within a specifically jazz environment. There’s no musical reason why Dave McKenna wasn’t better known before illness recently ended his career. Lots of people are afraid to listen, because they need the performer to have a reputation. I wonder how limited Green’s access to tradition was in his formative years.

There’s a jovial allusion in beginning of the second recorded set by this duo with Milt Jackson’s “Reunion Blues”, and the performance gives the game away that both these guys can play and like to play in duo. Green charges in with less flash than formerly, but with quite as much swing and brio. “It’s All Right With Me” demonstrates Malone’s fast fingers, and his touch and command of phrasing.

Delight is what these men are after, and there’s more good humour and colour in such choices of repertoire as “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love”. I rate neither terribly highly as straight jazz vehicles; they belong to a very wide range of song compositions seriously justifiable only when taken up as challenges. The challenge Green and Malone have taken up is in keeping with their upbeat approach, and has everything to do with wit. They can joke around with these tunes in terms approaching irony if not quite parody. Playing together, they essay paraphrases. Each of them sounds out the tune to the other, and takes the solo lead as if the tune had been tossed to him, finishing it by tossing the thing back to the other guy, or just joining in a play-out, justifiably pleased with what they’ve managed to do.

“Love for Sale” is a substantial vehicle, but here they take up the dark undercurrent of its original incarnation, “everything but true love”. Malone’s rapidly and tightly strummed dry-toned or acoustic guitar plays on an underlying menace by exploiting the melodramatic. This is musically sophisticated and creative, instrumentally-challenging fun, all the better for Green’s ability to be deadpan matter-of-fact.

On Malone’s “Flowers for Emmett Till” the duo’s individual talent for novel texture is also in evidence. “Where is the Love” further demonstrates the considerable gentleness of their playing when required.

Another difference between Green and Peterson is in the former’s more obvious harmonic sophistication. Art Tatum’s amazing harmonic advances were expressed in multinoted filigree lines, which Peterson’s earliest recordings (fifty-five years back, in Canada) initially emulated in playing with affinities also to the more ringing sound of bebop piano, Bud Powell very obviously. Peterson says he learned to accompany by listening from the wings to Hank Jones, when they were both working in the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe. Perhaps Jones also influenced Peterson in the direction of something mellower?

Green has never been a mellow player — that’s not a required quality and its absence has its own creative advantages. Listen to the title track, and also “Passport”, both Charlie Parker compositions. Parker died at thirty-five with the body of a man in his sixties and a lot of qualities more to be associated with somebody age seventeen-and-a-half. This sort of middle-road music demands youthfulness, and Green and Malone do like to underline that quality.

And why not follow everything else with a performance of something not only mellow, but also perfectly in keeping with programming on the intelligent principles whose neglect harmed a lot of past sessions by musicians who could have been doing better? It shouldn’t take that long to find a piece better than the first things which come to mind!

And so we have Peterson’s “Wheatland”, which is really the meat of this pair’s repertoire. Music isn’t to be discussed in the same terms as food. The dessert can come at any stage, and likewise satisfaction.