Lonnie Plaxico's first recording on Blue Note is a treat for a musician who, in his early 40s, already has an exciting veteran career in jazz circles, although he played mostly R&B in Chicago. He left his native Windy City to come play for Wynton Marsalis. The famed trumpet player heard a demo tape from Plaxico and asked him, during Christmas, to come immediately to New York. Such a move, 20 years ago, led to gigs with Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Steve Coleman, a stint with Art Blakely, an even longer stay with Cassandra Wilson, as well as a host of other musical experiences.
AAJ: Lonnie, this is quite an interesting step for you recording for Blue Note as a leader. Tell me a bit about what is going on in this album.
LP: In this album I am trying to play music from the 70s and just my musical experiences, putting everything together in the format of original music and not just recording standards. Although I did Squibcakes, for example, a song from the Tower of Power, which was one of my favorite bands when I was a teenager. The thing was to keep the music upbeat and happy.
AAJ: In recording as a leader, it might have been expected that you, for example, would be mixed further upfront, had more soloing space and that your presence would have been more prominent in rather obvious ways, although I would be the first to admit that there are other ways of being prominent rather than being upfront...
AAJ: You decided not to be such a central figure whereupon everything revolved just around you. This date is a collective effort, clearly led by you. Excellent musicians such as Jeremy Pelt, who just released a solo album, Marcus Strickland, Lew Soloff, as well as others, accompanied you. Aside from the Tower of Power tune, everything else is yours. It is important to note that this is not a just show up and play the chord changes album. The music recorded in Melange was written out. Tell me about that decision making process.
LP: Well, if I played saxophone, I might be more upfront. As I hear bass players do CD's, they put the bass upfront and play the melodies on the bass. To me that's kind of boring because of the nature of the instrument. If I have a trumpet player there, or a saxophonist, I want to take advantage of what they have to offer. To play my compositions is rewarding enough for me as there is nothing to prove. I want the whole ensemble to be heard. The bassist is like the center of a basketball team. You do not want to see, like in the case of the Miami Heat, Alonzo Mourning running up the court when you have Strickland in the team, if you know what I mean. It is the same thing with this recording. You can do it if you want to, because it is your CD or because it is your team. But you do have to make the right choices for the group too. Although, like I said, just writing the compositions is rewarding enough...
AAJ: Talking about the process of composing, you mentioned in another interview that you take a visual approach to composing music. You imagine yourself as a member of the audience looking at the band performing. That's an interesting perspective as many composers are caught in their own little worlds without considering the audience. Is there any particular reason why this is so, or this just comes naturally to you?
LP: When I started playing professionally in Chicago, I was 14 and playing with a lot of older musicians. They used to tell me that as much as you want to play for yourself, you still have to make the people happy. Therefore, a big part of my happiness is to know that, when I am playing for people, they enjoy what I am doing. Even more so than me! I mean, they are the ones that come to support me. I like music and it has nothing to do with any particular style. Overall, my musical experiences include rock, blues, country, and jazz' and, as long as the audience feels what I am doing, that's rewarding for me. I played in a lot of situations in NY where the musicians where pretty much playing for themselves and the people were not buying into that. I also try to be conscious and be attuned with the audience.
AAJ: It is not very good for business anyway...
LP: Yes, it is business before music...
AAJ: Since we are talking about business, how did you come about to do this recording with Blue Note. You are joining a giant here. Was there any particular pressure added to the date?
LP: A lot of it is who you know, luck and, in the end, you got to have some music. It takes everything. I've been working, on and off, with Cassandra Wilson for the last 15 years. Through her contacts, she was able to help me get a record deal over there. I did one CD for them and let's see what happens with that, as you never know. But they gave me the opportunity to present my music on the label, which really helps because it is like having a sponsor.
AAJ: It is, and it is a courageous effort because you decided to go ahead and do your thing and not worry too much about whether or not you were to get airplay in Smooth jazz stations. I hate to use the word commercial, but you did not have commercial considerations so heavily in mind when you were doing your compositions, this is accessible music, but it is not easy listening.
LP: I have received good reviews, but some critics can't hear it because they think it is commercial. Musically, the musician has to know a lot of music to play the music. It is not just one thing. It is not Be-bop, it is not R&B... The musician has to be seasoned to be able to play it, although I want it to have commercial appeal, but still I want the musician to have a sense of challenge also. A good musician likes to be challenged.
AAJ: Some of the musicians you included in the album are not necessarily veterans, but they were able to keep up with what you threw at them.
LP: The musicianship of Pelt and Strickland, for example, has as much to offer as any older musician in NY. This is also about getting exposure as I use them in the tour and in NY. In music, age might help, although experience helps more in the type of composition that you are going to write. As players, there are a lot of young musicians that can pick up on that real good. Also, in the long run, the style that you come up with, develops more as you get older. Most good musicians can really play by the time they are 20 years old.
AAJ: In terms of the sound that you are looking for, in this release you are relying on trumpets and saxophones, as well as the organ. Interestingly enough, you also incorporate quite a bit of a conga sound in the release. That's not common in contemporary mainstream jazz albums.
LP: To me such percussion is African and Latin and people identify with that sound. It is earthy and it goes back to some of my earliest experiences listening to music. The first 45 I bought was from Santana' Evil Ways and Black Magic Woman, so the organ and the percussion have always been part of what I hear in my head musically.
AAJ: I am rapidly becoming a fan of Pelt. I first noticed him in the Sharp Nine Class of 2001 CD, then in the recordings of Matt Ray, Rene Marie, and yours. He is getting around, rather fast' He is featured in the track Paella. When I first saw that title, I was expecting a stereotypical Latin Jazz tune, but to my surprise, the tinge is there but in quite a different way.
LP: Well, actually, in NY we have a lot of cultures. Lately I have been listening a lot to Spanish and Cuban music. You can't avoid it in NY because it is everywhere. This is the first song that I wrote that has a Latin flavor. I wanted to write something featuring the bass a little, that's why, in the introduction, I had the bass and the saxophone playing a line there together. Just trying to get that Spanish flavor there along with jazz, just trying to mix things up'
AAJ: You are planning on recording live shortly and that should prove to be a fantastic showcase for your music as live music takes on a life of its own. You also included in the album slower deep tunes such as Beloved. Although ballads often times are seen as fillers, this is not the case here.
LP: I wrote a song called Darkness. I played with Dexter Gordon. I was a big fan of his as a teenager and, luckily, I went to Morocco with him and we played in the Village Vanguard. His sound is in my head. When I started playing music, I wrote thinking of what he might play, and that's how I came up with that tune Darkness. As for the song Beloved, I write my music late at night that way I can channel other things in my mind. I was thinking of Coltrane. Some times when I write I think of a musician. It could be Wayne Shorter, or someone who has a really strong voice. As a musician, we study people with strong voices. When I write, I try to think of different people and try to draw from their energies.
AAJ: How often do you go back to Chicago?
LP: Maybe twice a year. We are going to do a concert there on May 3-4, 2002. Once you leave a place to come to NY, it becomes your home and it is hard to go back and forth.
AAJ: Yes, NY sticks with you forever. You have had the chance of traveling a bit, however, playing some festivals, as well as going twice to Europe. Your music, obviously, has been well received for you to be able to work with it. Finally, when you travel with your group how many musicians do you take with you?
LP: I try to travel in a sextet, but if the budget is not right, I travel with five musicians. I love, however, to have a percussionist there because it does add to the music.
AAJ: Melange was the AAJ editor's pick for the week of June 24, 2001 and a New and Noteworthy pick on November 2001 by Glenn Astarita.