If the buoyant, joyous music-making that guitarist Russell Malone brought to the Jazz Showcase on Thursday night was designed to lift spirits, it surely succeeded. For in up-tempo tunes and ballads, in blues and bebop and what-not Malone consistently projected radiant sounds and animated rhythm.
His music may not have plumbed the deepest recesses of the human experience, but it certainly offered quite a ride.
Malone set the upbeat, mostly extroverted tone of the evening with the opening tune, George Coleman's "Amsterdam After Dark." The guitarist's quick tempo, hard-driving approach to swing and stampede of fast-flying notes left no doubt that he had something big and dramatic to say. In effect, he launched this performance with the kind of exuberant climaxes one sooner expects to encounter at a set's finale, plus comparably hard-charging support from pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Willie Jones III.
Like many musicians who have been playing the Showcase in recent months, Malone paid homage to composer-pianist Cedar Walton, who died last August at age 79. In effect, we're hearing a long run of Walton compositions this season, a welcome development considering the ingenuity of this Walton's works. Malone added to the mix with his bluesy, rhythmically coy, melodically inventive account of Walton's "The Rubber Man." Here, too, Malone produced solos that were packed with ideas, a profusion of notes delivered with clarity of line and elegance of phrase.
The music world doesn't honor the memory of Chicago tenor saxophone super-virtuoso Johnny Griffin often enough, which made Malone's performance of Griffin's "Mil Dew" all the more welcome. The tune appeared on "Introducing Johnny Griffin" – the tenor man's 1950s debut on Blue Note Records – and Malone conveyed the explosive character of Griffin's art.
Beyond the digital dexterity of this playing, Malone punctuated his high-velocity solos with pungent chords that served as sonic exclamation points. Surely Griffin, who played the Showcase annually for decades – long after he had moved permanently to France – would have been pleased.
Fortunately for all involved, Malone took a breather on a song or two, as in a new original, which he's calling "Love Looks Good on You." Its sweetly melodic theme and light, lithe spirit placed it somewhere between the songwriting vocabularies of Duke Ellington and Burt Bacharach, not a bad place to be. The tune suggested that Malone holds a decidedly optimistic view of love and life, and he said he'll record it soon. It could become a signature piece for him.
Not surprisingly, Malone ended the show on a boisterous note, with a romping version of Freddie Hubbard's "Suite Sioux." But before Malone wrapped up the set, he offered an apt salute to Showcase founder Joe Segal.
"If there were any justice in this world, he would have gotten an NEA award," said Malone, referring to the prestigious Jazz Masters Fellowship that the National Endowment for the Arts gave Village Vanguard clubowner Lorraine Gordon in January.
Gordon has operated the Vanguard in New York since the death of her husband, Vanguard founder Max Gordon, in 1989. Segal has presented jazz in Chicago since 1947.
Bravo to Malone – not only for his music, but for his words.
Russell Malone Quartet
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Admission: $25-$40; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com