Feature Interview: Lonnie Plaxico

Discussion in 'Features' started by TalkBass, Mar 23, 2004.

  1. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    This feature was published on TalkBass.com March, 2002

    <img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/plaxico/cover.jpg" height="100" width="100" align="right"><p align="center"><b><font size="+4">Lonnie Plaxico:<br> <font size="+2">Sideman Lonnie Plaxico redefines ‘solo project’ on<br> <i>Melange</i>. </font></font></b></p> <p align="center"><b><i>Feature for TalkBass.com by Jennifer Gehlhar</i></b></p> <p>Lonnie Plaxico is among the top overlooked legendary bassists. Over the past 18 years he developed a respected name for himself in the jazz world. Inevitably, the finest musicians-including Art Blakey, Dizzy Gilespie, Dexter Gordon, Greg Osby and Wynton Marsalis-took notice of Plaxico and enlisted him as bassist for their respective music projects.
  2. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    Plaxico could retire on his laurels alone for collaborating with such masters, but instead he's taking his musicianship to the next level with his first Blue Note solo record titled <i>Melange</i>. </p> <p><i>Melange</i> is Plaxico's sixth solo album to date and arguably the best. It is a big step for Plaxico even from his previous solo album, Emergence-his first album to consistently receive good reviews. <i>Melange</i> is a culmination of Plaxico's skills gained from several years of working for other musicians and his newfound confidence in composing. </p> <p>"I'm going in a whole new direction with <i>Melange</i>," said Plaxico. "The CD is basically an extension of everything I didn't do on my previous albums."</p> <p>Obviously Blue Note liked Plaxico's new approach. He just recently signed with the record company and he's already on a European tour and several American shows are confirmed for this summer. According to Plaxico, Blue Note came at the right time because he is more than ready to share his music with the world.</p> <p>"I can't wait to play my songs on <i>Melange</i> live," he said. "I feel that my musical visions are finally portrayed accurately on <i>Melange</i>." </p> <p>Likewise, it's due time for Plaxico to release a solo album that he is proud of. He devoted his entire life up to this point to music and most of this time he played bass for other people. He hit the studio with Art Blakey for 12 of the drummer's albums. Plaxico regularly appeared on MBASE and Cassandra Wilson albums also. On the side of his main gigs Plaxico worked as a hired bass slinger for numerous musicians including Dianne Reeves and Steve Coleman. While he worked closely with jazz masters, he learned the ins and outs of tours, he learned what pleases crowds, and studios became like an old worn hat to him, but all his work for other musicians left him with little to no time to work on his own compositions.</p> <p>Plaxico tried to give his music more attention but he still had to pay the rent-a story all too familiar with artists around the world. Eventually the Chicago native moved to Brooklyn in search of regular paying gigs-that would be close to his new home-and new musicians to work with. </p> <p>Though the move was an easy decision, and he found work to pay his rent, Plaxico was still musically frustrated. "I moved to the greatest city in the world for jazz-New York-and I still didn't have time to work on my own music," he said. "I was constantly working on projects with other people. Once you get involved with a group, it takes up all your time." </p> <p>Plaxico most devotedly served as jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson's musical director. He also played bass on all of her albums, including the 1996 Grammy Award winner "New Moon Daughter." <img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/plaxico/bandw.jpg" width="258" height="294" align="right"></p> <p>With a resume like Plaxico's one would expect the walk to a major label to be like eating cake. This is not such a case. Despite Plaxico's renown work with legendary musicians and his current success with <i>Melange</i>, landing a deal with Blue Note didn't come easy. He paid his dues with four albums that were released prior to Emergence and all of them received little to no attention.</p> <p>Plaxico said one of his biggest setbacks after moving to NYC was competing against the mass media for public recognition. Though NYC is a haven for jazz musicians, Plaxico all-too-soon found that the general public prefers Top 40 pop and rap acts over jazz. On his first several albums he attempted to write in the smooth pop-jazz style better known as "elevator jazz". The music lacked personality and commercial success. Likewise, the music was received terribly by the media.</p> <p>Even today, though Plaxico moved beyond his concerns with winning the mass media's attention, he battles with the concept of the general public's exposure to music being limited by a select few industry outlets.</p> <p>"Jazz is stuck in a slump in America," he said. "The people in America don't treat jazz musicians good. Anything outside of what the media tells Americans to listen to, especially with jazz or improvised music, is not respected here. This is the problem with regulating what people listen to. </p> <p>"Well-publicized jazz shows are ridiculously expensive because of all the advertising, managing and promoting fees. This only hurts the musicians and music in a long-term perspective. The music doesn't get the attention it deserves and that which does is now an elite experience for a wealthy few because a lot of money for promotion is needed to compete with the mass media's pop-star picks." </p> <p>The American media and music industry are important issues to Plaxico but he's long since let this stand in his way of his music. He said, if anything, these issues make him strive to focus on his own music even more. </p> <p>He explained that it is important to distinguish the mass media from his own audience. This said, he still likes to please his crowds and after he grooved in the shadows of legends for several years he learned the difference between selling music to the mass media and selling music to an audience at a gig. </p> <p>"On previous albums I was attempting to create what I thought everyone else wanted to hear," said Plaxico. "But there was a day when I finally realized what I like to hear in music and to create that music I had to imagine what might happen on stage when I'm performing with other people. Remembering the audience became an important step to my writing process because I didn't want to lose the audience. I wanted the band members, my self and the audience to like what's going on. The first time I accepted my own style and went with it was on Emergence. With <i>Melange</i> I perfected my style."</p> <p>This "style" is one of a true musician. "Bassist" may be a misleading title for Plaxico because, though the bass is his main instrument, he writes every part in his music. He believes the bass and drums should hold the groove for the horns and keys that take solos. For a solo bassist this seems like a humble approach to composing music but Plaxico thinks this approach is the most practical way to express himself. </p> <p>This doesn't mean Plaxico scraps the life from his bass parts. Part of his virtuosity is his ability to blend the bass parts with the other instruments even when he solos. On <i>Melange</i>, Plaxico takes one obvious solo on "Paella," but he plays quietly and in perfect unison with the sax. On the rest of the album, he maintains a mad groove and his slap-and-pop funk technique is bound to get bassists excited but it won't distract from the average listener's attention toward the solos or melodies.</p> <p> Plaxico explained, "All of the energy behind my music is from the bass. The bass is the driving force for the songs and the foundation behind the solos. If I dropped out on my groove the rest of my group would fall apart. </p> <p>"I could incorporate more bass solos in the songs just because it's my music, but I didn't hear any bass solos when I was composing the songs on <i>Melange</i>. I don't want to take something just to do it. Besides, I don't need to prove my bass technique. I know I can do all that flashy stuff and a lot of other bassists have already done that in the past and several are doing it now so I chose not to."</p> <p>Plaxico said his composing style stems from what he likes to listen to. He said he much prefers to listen to collectively creative music than a "bunch of notes" being played by a solo bassist. He said, "When I listen to a solo bass shredding I just get frustrated. I don't like to listen to that. I like to watch bassists solo live and I respect those bassists for what they are doing but playing purely for technique just isn't musical to me." </p> <p>This brings up another aspect that Plaxico considers when he composes: the musicians. He said, "I try to compose music I like but I also try to keep it interesting for the musicians. A good musician always wants to play music that pushes his skills and makes him struggle a bit."</p> <p>On <i>Melange</i> Plaxico contacted some of the most respected working class musicians to play his music. "I played with the musicians on <i>Melange</i> for other projects," he said. "I felt comfortable working with them again on this record because I knew how much they could handle."</p> <p>Plaxico's compositions are difficult but he believes he enlisted the right musicians for <i>Melange</i> and he hopes to have a lasting music relationship with them. Lew Soloff and Jeremy Pelt play trumpets, Tim Ries and Marcus Strickland on tenor saxes, George Colligan and Helen Sung on keys, Lionel Cordew on drums and Jeffrey Haynes on percussion make one tight group and intimate, heartfelt songs.</p>
  3. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    <p>Plaxico's music roots are in jazz improvisation so it comes as no surprise that musician relationships are important to him. The ironic aspect to Plaxico's composing style is in his isolated approach to originally composing his songs. The final takes heard on the CD are Plaxico's written parts played by the aforementioned musicians. All of the parts were Plaxico's original improvisations that he saved, part by part, on his computer. Everything is prewritten except the drum kit parts.</p> <p>Perhaps this is the new way to write jazz songs. Plaxico said, "The songs all have original improvisation but then a different musician recreates it on my album because I know there are people who can play my solos better than I can play them. During live shows my musicians have more freedom and there is more on-the-spot improv." </p> <p>"Composing is easier now than say in the early 1900s because of modern technology," he said. "For example, I record each instrument on my computer until I feel a song is complete. My computer then notates what I played. The time-consuming work is all done on my computer. The only part I don't print out and give to my musicians is the drums. Playing drums is an intuitive feeling. I have to give drummers some freedom in order to get natural grooves. I usually give drummers the original recording so they can hear how I want the parts to sound but I expect the parts to change a little."</p> <p>Being that Plaxico is specific with how his songs sound, even down to the drum parts, and he likes to know the musicians can handle the technical difficulty level of his songs, it comes as no surprise that he prefers to work with the same musicians. He believes the more you work with a person, the better you can musically communicate. </p> <p>Plaxico's detailed approach to composing music didn't come naturally. It took a long time for Plaxico to figure out how to best compose his own music. His subtlety-of-genius approach to bass playing didn't come easy either but <i>Melange</i> is a perfect example of his stylized composing approach. </p> <p>Appropriately titled, <i>Melange</i> is a mixture of music styles. Plaxico proves himself as a talented bassist and composer on the explosive opening funk song, "Squib Cakes," originally by Tower of Power. Plaxico's small combo set-up for "Squib Cakes" is far from the full sounds of T.O.P.'s large hornline originally used on the song, but the simplified line-up creates a refreshing and intimate version of this classic. Plaxico's subtlety of genius is also displayed on "T.O.P.," a song dedicated to the aforementioned band. "T.O.P." displays a minimalist instrument approach, for easy listening digestion, without losing energy or technical mastery.</p> <p>On the title track, "Melange," and "Patios" Plaxico resurrects be-bop and Coltrane-style unison melodies. Just to stay cool is "Miles II," a song that emulates the cool himself. And to move into yet a different direction, "Sunday Morning" rings Halleluia! with fresh R&B and hip gospel tinges. Plaxico raps the CD up with his fusion dedication to his hometown Chicago on "Windy City". </p> <p>After he completed <i>Melange</i> the future of jazz looked positive to Plaxico. He plans to continue playing with an "old-school" gospel mentality in which he encourages improvisation during rehearsals jamming and live shows. He also plans to maintain a high level of technical fluency with his musicians, which will attract only the best of the best to perform with him. It is this personal passion and musical ingenuity that the jazz scene is known for and that Plaxico thinks will attract people to the music style again when the new technically mastered music becomes stale-an inevitable fate for much of contemporary music according to Plaxico.</p> <p>He specifically pointed at contemporary R&B as a prime example of "stale" music. He said, "I don't appreciate new R&B too much because all the grooves are sequenced. There isn't even a real bass. People get put into a daze and the music loses its flavor. I appreciate gospel better because the musicians have an old-school foundation of a real groove. These are musicians that play together on a regular basis. They learn to improv. and feel each other's grooves. It's not like the R&B groups today that are created by a manager or producer for one big flashy tour." </p> <p><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/plaxico/plaxico3.jpg" width="260" height="262" align="left">Plaxico also hopes the role of the bassist will not be obliterated by sequencers but will continue to evolve. "I hope jazz moves more into a direction where the bassist can take solos regularly," he said. "Now there aren't enough bands with solo bassists to change the role of the bass player. I don't know if this is because other musicians are not willing to let a bassist solo or if it's just because most bassists don't have much to say. I hope in the future that the bass will evolve into an instrument that can regularly take solos without the entire band falling apart. I started to do this with my music on <i>Melange</i> and my next solo album will challenge current preconceptions of bass players even more.<br> </p><br><hr>Visit Lonnie Plaxico's website for more information, including tour dates, at <a href="http://www.lonnieplaxico.com">www.lonnieplaxico.com</a></font></p>
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