Russell Malone – Playground
(MaxJazz – 2004)
by Paula Edelstein
Russell Malone, the internationally renowned guitarist / composer / arranger / producer, has the honor of launching the Strings Series for MaxJazz Records. Playground is a stylistic collection of original compositions, jazz and pop standards that evoke Malone’s artistic sensibilities on a variety of levels. Accompanied by his working group of Gary Bartz on alto saxophone, Joe Locke on vibes, E.J. Strickland on drums, Tassili Bond on bass and Martin Bejarano on piano, Malone transforms his musical rhetoric and string power on such songs as “You Should Know Better,” “Blues For Mulgrew,” “Playground,” and “Mandela.” Malone collects any preconceived smooth jazz notions and tosses them aside. Here, he’s playing straight-ahead jazz, groove and regulates his string virtuosity with soft ballads such as the lovely “Something To Live For,” and his beautiful solo effort titled “Remind Me.”
Malone is both spicy and sweet on “Sugar Buzz,” which features his dynamic guitar riffs and a sensational solo by vibist Joe Locke. However, most notable is the amazing departure from his previous musical direction and the new one he has taken with “Mandela.” With the spiritual impact and strengthening of emotional expression from alto saxophonist Gary Bartz, this song has an astounding effect on the listener and is certain to raise the bar on the true compositional integrity of Malone. Overall, the success of this recording lies in Malone’s seemingly effortless playing and the creative impulses derived and executed by his accompanists. Excellent repertoire here, be it the musically altered pop standard “We’ve Only Just Begun” or the revived “You’ve Got A Friend,” the nature of Russell Malone’s guitar has a flow of rhapsodic eloquence and the spirit of his music is unmistakable.