Lonnie Plaxico: Melange (2001)
The fine bassist Lonnie Plaxico, while still somewhat obscure to many, has now been a hard-working sideman on the jazz scene for some twenty years. He has quietly compiled an impressive resume via Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Von Freeman, Dizzy Gillespie and Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition band in earlier years, and M-BASE comrades Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Geri Allen, and Cassandra Wilson in later ones. Plaxico has now acted as the musical director for vocalist Wilson for the past 6 years, and has made important contributions to bands fronted by Geri Allen and Greg Osby moreover. In short Plaxico has been a relied-upon sideman for major leaders in jazz and continues to lend the solid and rich grounding of his bass to a variety of ensembles, notably ones which emanate from the M-BASE concept of which he was a part of along with Osby, Wilson and co.
And yet, Plaxico's own career as a leader has been latent, still waiting to come into full blossom through these years. He put out a few records in the earlier 90s but by-and-large in his own admission they were geared towards getting radio time rather than making an individualistic statement.
Things took a decided turn for Plax's career as a leader in the year of 2000 though. With the band concept that was introduced on the aptly- named record "Emergence" (Savant, 2000) there was a certain omen that Mr. Plaxico was not to be counted out. Indeed, there was a clear signal that he was going to have something vital and different to say after all- as the leader of a rather dynamic young band.
In "Emergence" the sound introduced by Plaxico was marked by both an energetic groove that was broken up by more melodic statements, and a unique arrangement concept that featured staccato, punchy melodic brass lines intersecting with pulse-driven ostinatos played by the rhythm section. All of the songs tended to have a lot of changing time signatures, segways into different feels and contrasting refrains. In fact, Plaxico's music was shown to be an exercise in contrast; the groove never got complacent before the dashing horn section would rush in to wake it up with some high- octane lines. Likewise, the more melodic segments were not played out to the point that one lost sight of the fact that- underlying was still a definite pulse, a definite groove. Moreover, it shouldn't go without saying that this was very "tight" music- tightly arranged and tightly compressed within the grooves. Plaxico maintains that "It's all strictly arranged and very demanding. So if you're not a good reader or you don't have any chops, you're not going to be able to play this music."
In any event, it should be no surprise with the success of this sound on the previous record, it has been largely carried over onto this one- "Melange." Indeed there is great continuity between the two records, and for those actually familiar with the 2000 record, Melange is quite nearly comparable- only different in a couple of negotiable ways.
Melange is a record that is probably geared a little more towards reaching a larger audience. This is not to say it is dilluted, nor appreciably less worthwhile than the prior record; only that it has some higher production values on board and that the groove factor is a bit more palpable.
Lest one be given the impression that this is some kind of "smooth" record or is simply another Plaxico effort geared towards getting airplay though, please forgive the writer for leading you to this conclusion, because MELANGE is far from smooth. Indeed it is about as challenging as any groove-based music one is going to find. This concept that Plaxico has going is a "fun" listen and yet is obviously quite technically-oriented and therefore, is also intellectually engaging. It is a rare "sound" that can combine both of these two traits; music like this however is testament to the fact that jazz seems to be able to do this more readily than many other music genres. It's also a testament to Lonnie's distinctive vision however.
As with the prior record there are fine, mostly younger musicians on board here. The cast has changed a bit this time around, not for any worse though. Rather than Don Braden, we have either Tim Ries or Marcus Strickland (a very promising up-and- comer) on tenor. And where Moran was the main keyboard/piano operator on the last record, it is George Colligan at the helm here(and who plays some very smokin' BX3 organ). Jazz fans who like to pick up "the first recorded performance of..." will want to know about one Helen Sung, the Brooklyn native who is known for her fine playing in sessions at the Up-and-Over cafe on Flatbush Avenue. She is on board for 5 cuts at the keys.
Another difference with this record is that the repertoire is actually a bit more varied than on the previous record. For example (and perhaps arousing suspicion that this record might in fact be "contemporary" in some way) there is a tune written in the style of Tower of Power, and a tune taken from the T.O.P book itself (updated through Plaxico's band sound of course). Another tandem: there is a tune dedicated to Miles Davis- "Miles 2" (which isn't particularly evocative), but then there is a tune "Darkness", which actually conjures up Miles' music in some real way. "Darkness" is probably the most straight-ahead tune on the record, a ballad that is dedicated to the impression Plaxico had of Dexter Gordon's sound, and which features the subtle muted playing of young Jeremy Pelt.
Other tunes which are noted are "Windy City", which is perhaps the outright funkiest tune on the agenda, and "Paella", which displays in good form the Latinesque capacities of Plaxico and his crew. It's a great little Latin ham.
"Short Take" is marked by a slashing vamp that then launches into a long melodic head, and it is probably the best example of the core sound of this band; high tension in the melody reading, then a certain release through the solos while a groove asserts itself readily.
Oftentimes the best advertisement serving a musician towards getting onto a larger label is a record cut for a smaller label that caught the biggie's eye. Lonnie Plaxico seems to have been able to take full advantage of this way in the door, because evidently the folks at Blue Note thought high enough of his last record- Emergence, that they opted to sign Lonnie onto the label. Indeed, Lonnies "Emergence" record must have sold him in because the concept that was there is still completely intact on this record. Recording with Blue Note did not cramp his style- just tightened the production values a bit and shortened the tracks (not to any serious extent). Perhaps owing to this production, this record sounds better in recording quality than the other.
Sound quality a plus or not, "Melange" is a record which sounds very polished and should wear well with both a more traditional jazz audience and the younger, groove-hungry generation that is looking for some soul from their music. And to reiterate, it captures that elusive compromise between groove and mental stimulation as crisply as you're going to get it.
Plaxico has a good thing going here- may it prove not only artistically worthy but reasonably popular also. This music is certainly the kind of appeal to a wider audience that the Jazz community need not be less than proud of. And on that note, go Lonnie go! You're doing a good thing here.
Track Listing: 1. Squib Cakes (4:43) 2. Melange (4:58) 3. Darkness (5:11) 4. Short Takes (7:20) 5. Miles II (5:29) 6. Paella (5:42) 7. Sunday Morning (5:31) 8. Beloved (5:35) 9. T.O.P. (6:37) 10. Patois (4:58) 11. Windy City (4:47)
Personnel: Lonnie Plaxico- Bass, Lew Soloff- Trumpet (tracks 1-5), Jeremy Pelt- trumpet (tracks 6-11). Tim Ries- Saxophone (tracks 1-5), Marcus Strickland- Saxophone (tracks 6-11) George Colligan- piano, keyboards (except #5), Helen Sung- piano, keyboards (#2, 5, 6), Lionel Cordew- drums, Jeffrey Haynes- percussion.