Back in the late 1990s I was driving in my car when a tune came on the radio that grabbed me and wouldn't let go. An electric guitar was cruising along faster than I was, playing an irresistible, soul-inflected melody. It was "Sweet Georgia Peach" by Russell Malone. A guitar hero was born.
Malone, 39, had accomplished a lot before that, and he's done a great deal since. Aside from five albums as a leader, he's lent his talents to Jimmy Smith, Freddy Cole, and Diana Krall. He's just put out another fine album, Jazz at the Bistro, with pianist Benny Green, who will join him in concert at Penfield High School Saturday night.
Malone didn't waste any time finding his groove. He discovered the guitar in church, at the age of four.
"It was an odd shaped instrument perched up against one of the pews," he says. "Then the gentleman began to play it and I was very much taken by the sound."
Malone listened to all the guitar music he could find. It wasn't just jazz, blues, and gospel that turned him on. Growing up in the 1970s he watched Roy Clark on Hee Haw, Chet Atkins on Pop Goes the Country, Merle Travis on the Grand Ole Opry, and Glen Campbell. "A lot of people don't know this, but Glen Campbell is a phenomenal guitarist."
But all this diversity has also led to some criticism from listeners who have questioned his musical choices. On Jazz at the Bistro he covers the Bee Gees' "How Deep is Your Love?"
"I love the song. It's well-constructed. It's got a good melody, good changes."
But that didn't impress one 80-year-old fan in Los Angeles.
"I played that tune and the crowd loved it. This lady walked up to me and got in my face. She said 'I've been following your career and I love what you do, but you should stick to Cole Porter and Ellington.' I said, 'No disrespect ma'am, but there's a chance you're not going to be around for another 30 years. What am I supposed to do when you guys aren't around anymore, stop playing?' She got a little perturbed, but then I grabbed her and I kissed her on the cheek, so that cooled everything out. But I think if the music is going to survive, we have to appeal to young people. I love Gershwin and Ellington, but I also love Stevie Wonder and The Carpenters."
Russell Malone and Benny Green perform at Penfield High School's 34th Annual Jazz Fundraiser Concert at 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 4, in the Penfield High School Auditorium, 25 High School Drive. Tickets ($16, $10 for students) can be purchased at Muzet, Inc., American Music, The Bop Shop, and Penfield High School.