Tuesday marked guitarist Russell Malone’s first gig at the Jazz Bakery — and when that bit of info was relayed to the audience, an experienced listener thought, uh oh… Those who are familiar with, shall we say, the Bakery’s “unusual” acoustics know that this could mean problems for a band — which was true enough at first. But after a period of adjustment, things began to snap more-or-less into place by the time the first set was drawing to a close.
Now recording for Verve, Malone is trying to establish his place as one of jazz’s most elegantly inventive guitarists in the wake of a high-profile gig with Diana Krall’s combo. He certainly proved his mettle as the most assured, swinging participant in a three-guitar shoot-out at the Hollywood Bowl last summer — and most unusually, he has developed a style of his own that is grounded in tradition yet doesn’t instantly remind listeners of some guitar legend of yore.
None of that was apparent in his opening numbers “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Mug Shot,” because you could barely hear Malone in the hopelessly reverberant, overamplified din. Oblivious at first to the room’s lopsided balances, drummer Byron Landham flailed and banged away, pianist Robert Glasper’s accomplished post-bop verities were reproduced with a glassy tone and bassist Richie Goods’ lower notes were lost in the murk.
Mercifully, Malone’s friendly, loping tune “To Benny Golson” brought with it a lower volume level and more open spaces in the drumming, allowing the logic and rhetorical flourishes of the guitarist’s solo work to be easily heard. He played the tune of “An Affair To Remember” with polished savoir-faire, eventually turning the piece into a good-natured, open-eared jam in which he teasingly threw in such tunes as “Georgy Girl” and even Michael Jackson’s “The Girl is Mine.” As for the gorgeous, gently chorded “Heather on the Hill,” Malone performed that number all alone — and you could luxuriate in the burst of twinkling harmonics on top of the chords without any sonic distractions.