Russell Malone refuses to be pigeonholed into one category as a player, composer, or arranger on this outstanding CD, the first release led by a guitarist for the Maxjazz label. With a powerful group supporting, including pianist Martin Bejerano, bassist Tassili Bond, and drummer E.J. Strickland, Malone is clearly at the top of his game. "Blues for Mulgrew" is built from a fairly simple blues riff, though it explodes into a complex post-bop vehicle with Bejerano either following Malone or playing in unison with him in a piece that almost borders on avant-garde. Equally explosive is his well-named "Sugar Buzz," a rapid-fire piece that adds guest Joe Locke on vibes. The strutting "Mandela," which almost seems to chant the word "freedom," features the soulful alto sax of Gary Bartz. Malone's lyrical treatment of Billy Strayhorn's "Something to Live For" is a gem, as are his solo interpretations of the overlooked chestnut "Remind Me" and a sparse but compelling "You've Got a Friend." The Carpenters' huge hit "We've Only Just Begun" can come off hackneyed in the wrong hands, but Malone's arrangement picks up the tempo and frees the rhythm section from just plodding along behind him, while he adds a humorous lick from Burt Bacharach's "Say a Little Prayer." An added bonus is a live performance of Malone's "Mugshot," accessible only through a CD-ROM, though the poor lighting gives the video portion a homemade rather than a professional look.
AllMusic Review by Ken Dryden