Nourished by an omnivorous musical diet of blues, rock, country and jazz, he taught himself to play in a style that blends polish and surprise.
"I never set out to be a star," Malone says. "I just wanted to play with great musicians and grow. I figure if I take care of the music, it will take care of me." He got his wish, playing high-profile gigs with the likes of Harry Connick Jr. and Diana Krall, as well as leading and recording with his own band.
Malone's populist, independent approach is demonstrated by his cover of the Carpenters' wedding-band standard, "We've Only Just Begun." On his latest CD, "Playground" on MaxJazz, the guitarist finds the sleek, well-crafted melodic heart within the sentimental lyrical confection.
While Malone finds standards in the artistically disreputable neighborhood of the Top 40, the younger Russell Gunn, born in the hardcore ghetto of East Saint Louis, champions a different species of neglected music.
"My direction, at least since 1998, has been to bring the more urban, hip-hop rhythmic element into the music," Gunn says, "and to take the museum out."
Deeply engaged in Atlanta's vital, positive underground hip-hop community, the trumpeter sees the music's bright promise eclipsed by commercial calculation.
"Recording is an investment business, just like stocks and bonds," he says. "Why put money into underground music when you have something that there is already a market for?"
He believes that logic is shortsighted. "If they put it out there, people would support it; people will always chose art if they have the choice," Gunn insists. But, he admits, "enlightenment costs money."
Gunn's tone and approach are often compared to the great, underrated Booker Little, a classic sound that bridges the gap with audiences who know little about his hip-hop influences like KRS-One and Rakim. Fronting McBride's group will reunite him with high-school band-mate Terreon Gully, a drummer whose crisp flexibility is ideal for Gunn's urban beats.
During the past five years, the Christian McBride Band has proven to be the ideal house band for this kind of festival. Saxophonist Ron Blake and pianist Geoffrey Keezer are able leaders in their own right, and the phenomenal McBride uses the annual event as an opportunity to display his classical chops with the Shanghai Quartet. (This year it's a performance of Dvorak's "Bass Quintet in G Major.")
Jazz and classical, hip-hop and AM pop seem like so many varieties of oil and water, but for these musicians the rigid separations between genres are artificial. The only thing that matters is playing truthfully and connecting with the audience.
"A lot of these terms and descriptions," Malone observes, "come from people who can't play."
He continues: "There is an old African saying: It's SThe Christian McBride Band performs with guitarist Russell Malone Wednesday, June 1, and trumpeter Russell Gunn on Saturday, June 4. Both shows at 7:30 p.m. in the Alice Jepson Theatre. Tickets are $15-$18 and can be purchased by calling 289-8990.
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