Russell Malone, “Soul Leo” from Love Looks Good on You (2015): One Track Mind

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Russell Malone takes a fleet run through Mulgrew Miller’s “Soul Leo,” upping the ante even as he keeps the deep-fried grit that gave the original its gravitas. No, he isn’t trading speed for groove, just reenvisioning the song as a race down this busy street, where the more familiar original seemed to have been born in the alley running behind a barbecue joint.

Malone rose to fame in a much different environment, providing skilled accompaniment to the likes of Harry Connick, Jimmy Smith, Diana Krall and, yes, Miller, and it remains a rare treat to hear him as a leader. That makes Russell Malone’s recent signing with HighNote Records, and the just-released album Love Looks Good on You, all the more intriguing.

Malone, who also served as producer on Love Looks Good on You, has this canny ability to play with both speed and emotion, power and space. All the more reason why he ought to put out more albums on his own.

Of course, the muscular original — which, as part of Mulgrew Miller’s 1987 release Wingspan, found the pianist tangling with Kenny Garrett and Tony Reedus — harkened directly back to Miller’s roots in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. That remains faithfully in tact, but Russell Malone isn’t simply focused here on joy-filled accessibility. He shows a thrilling gumption, too.

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