Lonnie Plaxico: Striving for Originality, Noteriety
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.
AAJ: Seems like even some of the legendary bass players don’t have too many records under their own name. They’re sidemen, mostly.
LP: A lot of it is the nature of the bass, being an accompanying instrument. It doesn’t lend itself to being out front, like a saxophone. Also, I think a lot of time the record companies look more for the flashy instrument. Most bass players I speak to, they want to lead a band but [the bass] has stayed in that role for so long, it’s hard to break out. So to have the opportunity to write music and get it presented, to where you can work on it... if you don’t have a band, it’s pretty hard to do.
AAJ: The new CD, is that all original music?
LP: I did one tune by Tower of Power. [“Squib Cakes”]. All the other stuff is original. I did all the arrangements. I love writing music and playing different styles of music also. I mean, for me, it’s in my blood to be a bandleader. Not necessarily being out front, in the sense of, like, playing the melodies or whatever. More as a composer.
AAJ: There’s different styles on the CD. Funky, jazz... does that kind of reflect your background?
LP: That’s my background. I started out as an R&B musician in Chicago and I got into rock and different styles of music. Jazz was probably the last thing I got into as a teenager. I moved to New York and it was pretty much that way [jazz]. But I never let go of the early influences. 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.
AAJ: Have you done a lot of arranging?
LP: I’ve done arranging since I was in high school with local bands, R&B groups. I always liked changing up stuff and trying to make stuff exciting for the audience. I love arranging.
AAJ: How do you feel about the CD?
LP: I feel good about it. I’ve been in a lot of bands in New York and I’ve traveled a lot and 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. I try to write and present myself with what I think – when I play with other people a change from what they’re doing and try to envision all that stuff in my own music. Along with the stuff that they might do.
AAJ: Do you feel like you pulled that off pretty well?
LP: I’m feeling very confident in what I’m doing. I know there’s still a lot of places to grow in, but I feel like I’m making an attempt to not just go along with the jazz program. Just straight ahead, like traditional. I’m trying to get where I have a lot of variety in music and try to bring in the younger audience also.
AAJ: That’s your regular working band [Jeremy Pelt, trumpet; Marcus Strickland, tenor sax; Jeffrey Haynes, percussion; Lionel Cordew, drums; George Colligan and Helen Sung, keyboards] with some extra horns [Tim Ries, sax, and Lew Soloff, trumpet]?