Listening to guitarist Russell Malone in performance sometimes calls up Winston Churchill's famous description of Russia as "a riddle inside a mystery, wrapped in an enigma." What better way to describe a player whose music can range so widely in quality over the course of a set?
Tuesday night at the Jazz Bakery, for example, Malone offered an utterly exquisite solo version of (how's this for an unusual choice?) the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love," following it, shortly thereafter, with a busy, multi-noted, funk-driven original, "Bird Dog."
That sort of off-the-wall juxtaposition of styles and genres was typical of the entire set.
Working with pianist Martin Berjerano, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer E.J. Strickland, Malone's musical skills were never in doubt. His opening numbers--an original, "Look Who's Here," and the standard "All Through the Night"--essentially served as showcases for his fast-fingered technical virtuosity. It wasn't until he reached Milt Jackson's lovely ballad "Heartstrings" that the music began to reveal the graceful melodic qualities that always have characterized his finest efforts.
He followed that with "Soulful Kisses," displaying his marvelous fluency with blues-driven phrasing. And one more ballad, the standard "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry," further revealed Malone's remarkable capacity to create rich harmonic textures.
All of which simply underscored one's riddle/mystery/enigma reaction. Malone clearly seems capable of extraordinary feats on his instrument. Yet too often he willingly places that skill at the service of music goals that fail to bring out the best in his playing. And that's a shame. Because if he ever finds and maintains the sort of creative focus that allows his most attractive musical attributes to flourish, he could become one of the significant guitarists of his generation.
The Russell Malone Quartet at the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City. Tonight through Sunday at 8 and 9:30 p.m. $25. (310) 271-9039.