Shall we gather at the river … The beautiful, the beautiful river.”
For jazz guitarist Russell Malone, who grew up on sanctified music, little could sound sweeter. That goes double when he is in the spotlight.
Gulf Coast Ethnic and Heritage Jazz Festival marks its 19th rendition with a return to its riverside roots. The Aug. 12 centerpiece concert moves from the midst of downtown to the Mobile Convention Center.
In traditional Azalea City style, the Excelsior Band’s 5 p.m. fanfare opens festivities and a heavyweight lineup as impressive as any the event has boasted. The hometown brass band is followed by New Orleans pianist Michael Pellera and saxophonist Rebecca Barry with their own combo.
Finally, headliner Malone comes bearing an enormous reputation, a great band and a new album. His disparate influences also fit his Mobile premiere.
The Albany, Georgia, native was exposed to a standard Southern palette of sounds in childhood. Gospel artists such as Shirley Caesar, the Gospel Keynotes and the Dixie Hummingbirds were seminal.
“Even at the age of 4 I was fascinated by the way people responded to music. They cried, they laughed they danced. All those things really fascinated me,” Malone recalled.
When he saw “this peculiar-looking instrument perched up against one of the pews,” young Malone was fascinated. He was more attracted when it was strummed.
“When I heard the guitar, I knew that would be the way I would express whatever I was feeling musically. That would be my tool,” Malone said.
Malone’s parents indulged him. They were happy the instrument kept him focused.
He absorbed music around him. Malone reeled off names such as Glen Campbell, Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Roy Clark when asked.
A late-night 1975 PBS broadcast changed him when the 12-year-old saw George Benson performing with Benny Goodman. He sensed “a whole ‘nother level” of guitar he was determined to learn.
Benson led to Wes Montgomery, then Charlie Christian and on and on. Malone stepped into the jazz waters and was off with the flow.
Malone’s lush tone, spellbinding virtuosity and flexibility led to decades playing with truly legendary names in jazz and beyond: Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Ray Brown, Jimmy Smith, Clarence Carter, Ron Carter, Diana Krall, Wynton Marsalis, Peabo Bryson, Ray Brown and Harry Connick, among numerous others. It’s all opportunity for growth.
“I learned a long time ago, don’t look down on other forms of music. I know a lot of jazz musicians who are judgmental and have all this virtuosity, but sometimes technique along with ego will get in the way of the music. Whatever gig you’re on, play that gig,” Malone said.
Observation is his forte. His scrutiny of older masters — “how they stand, how they eat, how they talk” — showed him the nuance of musical interpretation. From bassist Ray Brown, he learned how far charm and mutual respect can get you.
Malone learned what not to do on an early gig with titan Sonny Rollins. The saxophonist took wing in harmonic exploration and an excited Malone tried to join him.
“I tried to go with it, to interact with him and Sonny took the horn out of his mouth and looked at me for like five seconds and it was like I could see his eyes through those shades he was wearing. He scared the living crap out of me. There’s nothing more terrifying than getting a look like that from Sonny Rollins on the bandstand,” Malone said
Post-show, Rollins politely explained he preferred the backing group lay down a non-interactive groove so his wide-ranging ideas had a foundation.
Malone also brings a July 2017 album, “Time For the Dancers,” with his longtime bandmates pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Willie Jones III. AllAboutMusic’s Matt Collar called the recording “… a fluid, engaging production that finds Malone straddling the line between urbane, acoustic jazz standards, earthy funk and virtuosic balladry … an incredibly soulful improvisationalist with a wide-ranging ear for all kinds of music … brings to mind a balance of such elder luminaries as Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery and yes, George Benson.”
Admission for the impressive slate is only $10 with advance tickets at A&M Peanut Shop (209 Dauphin St.). Why so affordable? Thank the graciousness of the Mobile County Commission, the city of Mobile, the Alabama State Council on the Arts, Mobile Arts Council, Hampton Inn Downtown, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and Sigma Pi Phi fraternity.
Want a world-class jazz baptism? There’s a gathering at the river.