Monday, September 19, 2016

Eminent visiting guitarist fronts a dynamic quartet at the Jazz Kitchen

Russell Malone was also among many guitarists paying tribute to Wes Montgomery.
The Jazz Kitchen and Russell Malone made their mutual admiration society publicly evident early Sunday evening. The nonverbal results were evident throughout the guitarist's first set.

David Allee, the club's proprietor, introduced the quartet by saying he'd long wanted to bring Malone to the Jazz Kitchen. And between selections in that initial set, Malone returned the compliment, saying he'd wanted for years to play the Jazz Kitchen.

The full house was the beneficiary. The band Malone heads is tight-knit. Formidable in the background and capable of taking attractive turns in the spotlight were bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Willie Jones III. In the second tune, Cedar Walton's "The Rubber Man," an episode of trading eights with the drummer indicated Jones' knack for following a tune's implications rather than just making a splash. This skill, also displayed in his solos, is one that some drummers don't bother to develop.

Malone's partnership with pianist Rick Germanson, a past winner of the American Pianists Association's jazz fellowship awards, was unerring and mutually inspiring. After his imaginative solo on "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry" capped by a florid coda evoking French impressionism, Germanson was lavished with praise by his boss. "After that, I'm going to let you buy me a drink," Malone joked.

The two men share a fondness for varied textures, for quotation and allusion, for melody, and for harmonic exploration. Take Malone's one original in the first set, the meltingly tender "Love Looks Good on You." Malone's tone was at its most liquescent.  His willingness to become soaringly sentimental was reflected in a solo with close harmonies, somewhat like Marvin and Tammi in "You're All I Need to Get By" or, derivatively, Peabo and Celine in "Beauty and the Beast." Germanson echoed and extended this kind of sugary soulfulness in his solo. It was totally fitting, never overindulged.

A large part of successful small-group playing is tempo selection, it seems to me. The tune has to sound right from the "head"  through the solos to the outchorus. That means the leader has to set a tempo that is likely to show off everyone to his best advantage in solo spots whose actual content he has no way of knowing. If the tune is borrowed from the book of a master singer, that's a good guide, though not compulsory.

"Witchcraft" had just the right pace, recalling Frank Sinatra's tempo. With that kind of relaxed momentum behind it, the Malone quartet's version could hardly go wrong. Once again, Germanson and Malone complemented each other with suggestions of "locked-hands" chordal playing. Germanson elaborated on this approach, unfurling extended tremolos in both hands that brought Oscar Peterson to mind. Bassist Sellick fashioned a melodically creative solo, too.

In Jerry Goldsmith's "Your Zowie Face," Malone nodded toward the legendary guitarist's son Robert when he gave some vigorously stroked Wes touches to his solo. Germanson followed suit, punningly, with allusions to another "Wes" — the Randy Weston of "Little Niles" and "Hi Fly" — during his witty turn in the spotlight.

Everyone steamed gloriously in the set-closer, Freddie Hubbard's "Sweet Sue," whose recurrent double-time episodes were especially well-managed. Then, pumping up the volume, with Germanson laying out, Malone and the rest of the band unleashed some assertive blues to elicit a huge ovation in gratitude for two hours of stirring music. This guest probably would be welcome back anytime.