Russell Malone’s first guitar was a plastic green toy his mother bought him. Only four years old, Malone strummed the little guitar all day long for days on end trying to emulate the sounds he had heard from guitarists at church in Albany, Georgia. As a child, Malone developed an interest in blues and country music after seeing musicians on television like Chet Atkins, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Roy Clark, Son Seals, and B.B. King. Then, at age 12, he saw George Benson perform with Benny Goodman on Soundstage. Malone has said, “I knew right then and there that I wanted to play this music.” A self-taught player, Malone progressed well enough to land a gig with master organist Jimmy Smith when he was 25. “It made me realize that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was,” Malone recalls of his first on-stage jam with Smith. After two years with Smith, he went on to join Harry Connick Jr.’s orchestra, a position he held from 1990-94, appearing on three of Connick”s recordings. Malone also worked in a variety of contexts, performing with artists as diverse as Clarence Carter, Little Anthony, Peabo Bryson, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, Roy Hargrove, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, The Winans, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Bucky Pizzarelli, and Jack McDuff.
Malone is one of the most commanding and versatile guitarists performing. He can move from blues to gospel to pop to R&B and jazz without hesitation, a rare facility that has prompted some of the highest profile artists in the world to call upon him: Diana Krall, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Natalie Cole, David Sanborn, Shirley Horn, Christina Aguilera, Harry Connick, Jr, Ron Carter, and Sonny Rollins.
Along the way, Malone has made a name for himself combining the bluesy sound of Grant Green and Kenny Burrell with the relentless attack of Django Reinhardt and Pat Martino. After hearing Malone play in Connick’s band, former Sony head, Tommy Mottola, brought Malone over to Columbia. Malone’s self-titled debut, Russell Malone, in 1992 quickly went to #1 on the radio charts. This album has Malone playing Electric, Acoustic, and Classical guitars. It also features Harry Connick Jr. on piano, his current employer at the time, joking around on “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” a vocal piece by Malone, not Connick.
Russell Malone was quickly followed by his second album, Black Butterfly in 1993, with Paul Keller on Bass, who later became his trio mate with Diana Krall. Diana Krall’s label, Verve Records, came calling next and released three albums by Malone: Sweet Georgia Peach (1998), Look Who’s Here (2000), and Heartstrings (2001). Hearstrings features a full orchestra with arrangements by Johnny Mandel, Don Caymmi, and Alan Broadbent, accompanied by the all-star rhythm section team of Kenny Barron (piano), Christian McBride (bass), and Jeff “Tain” Watts (drums).
Malone joined Diana Krall in 1995, contributing to Krall’s first four Grammy-nominated albums: All For You (1996), Love Scenes (1997), When I Look In Your Eyes (1999), and The Look Of Love (2001). In addition to winning for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, When I Look In Your Eyes (1999) was the first jazz album since 1976 (George Bensons’s Breezin’) nominated for Album of The Year.