Malone’s steady pulse and mercurial moods, from deep blues to high play to impressionist washes of sound, resonated through an unlikely space — a conference room at the MSU Federal Credit Union headquarters — early Monday evening.
Malone was in town to kick off the fourth season of star jazz residencies at MSU.
Friday, after four days of rehearsing and barnstorming the state, Malone and MSU’s jazz orchestras will crown a busy week with a concert at MSU’s Fairchild Theatre.
MSU guitar Professor Randy Napoleon, no slouch himself, looked star-struck Monday sitting next to Malone as his fellow Professors of Jazz backed the legendary guitarist on the bandstand.
“He is a real live guitar hero,” Napoleon said. “He is one of the most exciting guitarists on the planet. He has intensity, drive, an absolute, clear sense of time and a beautiful, warm, natural sound.”
Napoleon asked Jazz Studies Director Rodney Whitaker to bring Malone to the residency program. He first heard Malone at the now-defunct Bird of Paradise club in Ann Arbor in 1993.
“He let me sit in. It was an incredible experience,” Napoleon said.
Monday’s credit union gig was brief but still packed in some memorable moments.
Halfway through the insanely fast standard “Lover,” Malone and trumpeter Etienne Charles erupted in a rustic, Django Reinhardt-style frenzy, with Malone chunking out chords and Charles twirling trumpet licks like a barefoot gypsy.
The gang left the stage for Malone to take a virtuoso solo turn on an old standard, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” bringing the cavernous room to a total hush and out-trilling any nightingale.
Despite his steely rhythms and rocksolid stance, Malone painted a cirrus sky of finely layered nuances. He accompanied his MSU colleagues as sensitively as a mother elephant uses her trunk to bathe a baby — the embodiment of power tempered by love. When bassist Rodney Whitaker took an earthy, lyrical solo, Malone garlanded him in delicate twinkles almost beyond the range of perception, like a dulcimer played on a distant mountaintop.
“He can flip a switch and play the most subtle, beautiful, delicate stuff you ever heard,” Napoleon marveled. “On top of that, he’s a very nurturing, wonderful person. I wanted my students to have a chance to get to know him and spend time with him.”
Standing at a table in the back of the room, listening intently, was MSU freshman and bass student Liany Mateo. When Mateo was 15, she went to her first jazz show, at New York’s Jazz Standard, to hear one of her heroes, bassist Ron Carter. Malone was the guitarist.
“I sat right in front of him,” she said. “I doubt he’d remember. And now he’s here. I’m really happy he’s the first artist coming around. He swings really hard.”
Malone worked with jazz organist supreme Jimmy Smith in 1988, toured with Harry Connick Jr. from 1990 to 1994 and attracted a lot of critical notice backing up diva Diana Krall in the late 1990s. He also appeared in the jazz-themed 1996 Robert Altman film “Kansas City.” In 2010, Malone joined a band led by the greatest of all living jazz saxophonists, Sonny Rollins.
The residency series, funded by a $1 million gift from the MSU Federal Credit Union, brings four top jazz artists to Michigan each academic year. (Hence the weird spectacle of a hot jazz gig in a cold, glass and brick office building.) The remaining guest artists scheduled for MSU residencies this academic year are bassist Rufus Reid, Dec. 5 through 11; clarinetist Anat Cohen, Feb. 6 through 12; and trombonist Conrad Herwig, March 20 through 26.
After a day of master classes and rehearsals at MSU Tuesday, Malone and the MSU student orchestras are scheduled to visit high schools in Royal Oak, Spring Lake and Alma, as well as the Carr Center arts academy in Detroit.
“He didn’t know he was going to work that hard,” Whitaker joked on stage Monday.
Russell Malone with MSU Jazz Orchestras
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14
$15/$12 seniors/$5 students and children
Fairchild Theatre 542 Auditorium Road, East Lansing
(517) 353-5340, music.msu.edu