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-- Pamela Murray Winters
"We slapped a little Afro Sheen on that tune," said guitarist Russell Malone at the Kennedy Center's KC Jazz Club on Thursday night. By the time he and his band mates polished off the Carpenters' old hit "We've Only Just Begun," the familiar pop melody was bracketed by a wild assortment of blues, soul and funk licks -- almost enough to make Karen Carpenter and Bo Diddley seem related.
By then, no one in the club was unaware of Malone's six-string virtuosity. Backed by a responsive trio -- pianist Martin Bejerano, bassist Tassili Bond and drummer Jonathan Blake -- the guitarist opened the show with a few original pieces that showcased signature traits: a keen sense of dynamics, a sophisticated harmonic approach, and a gift for turning his improvisations into dramatic arcs before finding colorful ways to neatly resolve them.
A Georgia native who grew up listening to a lot of gospel, soul, country and blues, Malone also used other techniques to alter the mood. Call-and-response patterns, vibrato-capped phrases and sliding double-stops sustained a relaxed and southern tone at times. Yet nothing proved more melodic than a spacious and softly amplified interpretation of the pop standard "More Than You Know," which found Malone using both pick and fingers to create a lovely, shimmering arrangement.
The concert was part of the Kennedy Center's ongoing series "A New America: The 1940s and the Arts," but only one performance entirely suited the theme: the quartet's swinging and thematically freewheeling version of "Wholly Cats," a tribute to electric-guitar pioneer Charlie Christian.
-- Mike Joyce