Lonnie Plaxico: Striving for Originality, Noteriety

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I feel like I
The story of bassist Lonnie Plaxico starts out like a classic tale. Local kid makes it out of Chicago’s projects by learning to play an instrument, finding himself, and making music his life’s work. He goes on to play bass with a Who’s Who list of musicians, including a long tenure with one of rising star vocalists, the dazzling Cassandra Wilson.

But nowadays, Part II of that tale smacks of cold hard reality. A sharp musician with a vision tries to get some acclaim with his own band. Without “star” appeal, the picture is clouded by a music industry that can be callous and often political, unmoved by talents that aren’t well-known names. And hell, the leader is a BASS player, no less – not standing out front with a horn. And then there’s that tag: Jazz.

Intimidating.

Disheartening, perhaps, but this superb bassist is undaunted. Plaxico is putting all his efforts into leading his own band, in spite of the obstacles; striving to bring his music out. And he’s making strides.

Plaxico is about to release a new CD, this time on a major label. Mèlange will be out in August. It features his working band, with some additional horns, and almost entirely own music. It’s his sixth recording under his own name, but the first for a major studio. It’s a big step, he says, in the long process of trying to gain respect and get a bigger public presence.

Plaxico’s sturdy bass has been adorning the music of a jazz greats since his teen years. At age 40, he’s still an in-demand bassist, but he wants to step forward with his own thing. If the CD is any indication, that thing is strong. It moves along displaying different influences, R&B, pop, funk, jazz. It’s accessible, yet very creative and funky. Not unusual from a guy who started out playing Chicago’s R&B circuit as a youngster.

“I never let go of the early influences,” he says. “So when I write I just try to put it all together. I’m not trying to recreate what happened in the 50s. I feel like nobody can do that anyway.”

He’s played with Von Freeman, Art Blakey, Wynton Marsalis, Dexter Gordon, Jack DeJohnette, Woody Shaw, Dizzy Gillespie and many more. A sideman’s dream. But this bassist longs to be a leader. “If I could work my band, I’ll turn down any gig right now. I don’t care who it is. Even if it’s for a small fraction of the money I can make,” he says.

It’s a tough haul, though. He says that without big names in his band – and he insists on working with his regulars – it’s tough to get nightclub owners to give him a look, even if they know his name. And the bass is not a flashy enough instrument for them either.

Plaxico also blames some of the older musicians for staying too much in the old tradition, not being interesting to young audiences, and thereby being unwitting assistants to the problem of getting music out to the people.

“You’ve got to move ahead. I feel like jazz got killed. The musicians just try to hold on. And that’s not what the masters did,” he says.

So the struggle continues. But Plaxico is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goal. He says he has the patience and strength to do it. This new, vibrant CD could be a big stepping stone.

He says the music is highly arranged, but it moves and grooves from end to end. It’s tight, sharp and slick.

“When I write music I try to envision what I don’t hear people doing. To try to make it different. When people come and hear my group, they’re hearing me. They’re hearing something totally different than all the other bands that I played with,” says Plaxico.

Indeed, the CD is not straight ahead jazz. Bit it is NOT smooth jazz and an effort to get recognized that way. The songs are engaging and the band is very tight. It’s good stuff, with shifting rhythms, good solos and a strong concept. It may not be as daring as 1970s Miles that wanted to break away from tradition, but it’s a sweet CD. And don’t expect to see a lot of bass solos because the leader plays that instrument. He stays in the rhythm section, knocking out his strong sound with stellar technique. As he says, he doesn’t want just a platform for bass solos. He wants his music to speak. It does.

From a family of musicians, Plaxico started toying with the bass at an early age and is mostly self-taught. That includes learning to read music and arrange it. By the age of 12, he taught himself to play the electric bass and ventured into a music scene renowned for its mix of jazz, funk and blues. By 14, he was performing with prominent Chicago jazz figures. In 1980, Plaxico moved to New York and began to appear with major artists. His first extended gig was with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers between 1983 and 1986. He’s featured on numerous albums including the Grammy Award-winning New York Scene. In 1986, he joined Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition and stayed until 1993. His collaboration with Wilson spans 15 years, off and on.

Plaxico took time out to talk recently with All About Jazz.

All About Jazz (AAJ): How cool is it to be on Blue Note? It’s a much bigger label and there are not too many bass players out there fronting bands. Is that a big step for you?

Lonnie Plaxico (LP): Yeah. It’s a big step. I’ve been in New York for 20 years now and I’ve done five CDs on a smaller label. Being on Blue Note, I think, can get me the exposure to get me over the hump. Because a lot of festivals and a lot of jazz clubs – if you’re not on a major label, they pretty much don’t even look your way. So, I’m happy to be on Blue Note and presenting my music on that level.

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