About Melange and More
by Mark Ruffin
If someone were to write a book about the evolution of the bass in contemporary jazz over the last quarter a century, there would have to be a chapter totally devoted to Chicago. A few pages would be devoted to Lonnie Plaxico who has a brand new album on Blue Note titled “Melange.”
Just listing the name of bassists from the Windy City who played with Miles Davis can take up some space- Felton Crews, Angus Thomas, Richard Patterson and Darryl Munch’ Jones, who went on to considerable stardom with Sting and presently the Rolling Stones. Others include Plaxico, Steve Rodby, Larry Kimpel, Kenny Davis, Chuck Webb and others. Because of the supportive nature of their chosen instruments, these names aren’t very well known. However, check the back of a good many contemporary jazz albums, and there they are.
Plaxico is best known for his work with two of the biggest names in jazz history, drummer Art Blakey and vocalist Cassandra Wilson. He made 12 albums with the former and the latter is one of his old friends, who he has seen first hand rise from a woman who “used to wait for me after sets to borrow money,” to one of the most important female vocalist ever to sing jazz.
At 41, the bassist doesn’t hide or deny that being music director for Wilson, one of the most commercially successful artists on Blue Note Records, helped him get a deal with the storied company.
“Without question, my association with Cassandra is the main reason I got a deal,” Plaxico admitted.
:”Most jazz record companies are looking to discover somebody,” Plaxico said, pointing out his age and that he has released five albums on a smaller jazz label. “I’ve been around a while and played with everybody.
“That can work against you sometimes,” he continued. “(Record companies) want younger musicians who are less exposed.”
Both Plaxico and Wilson rose to prominence in jazz through a group of New York based musicians who created a form of music in the mid-80’s called M-Base. The music was a hip-hop and rock influenced kind of avant-garde jazz. It was created out east, but many practitioners were actually from Chicago, including M-Base founder, Steve Coleman.
He first heard of Plaxico in the 70’s, back in Chicago. Then the bassist was one of two bass players from Fenger High School making lots of noise on the local scene, Richard Patterson was the other.
By his senior year, Plaxico had already been playing in jam sessions with the legendary Chicago sax man Von Freeman when Coleman, somewhat of a musical intellectual, gave the young musician a call.
“I was in my last year of high school and he was already in college, which back then seemed like a huge gap, ” Plaxico remembered, “and since a lot of black guys weren’t into Charlie Parker and stuff like that, he wanted to give me a test.”
Coleman found in Plaxico a well-studied musician, who not only knew jazz and r&b history, but was also raised in the warmth of a family where music was learned by osmosis.
At 12, he was enlisted into the family band, the Bilalian Express, a pop/funk band, which gained a degree of popularity on Chicago’s south side three decades ago. In 1976, when he was 16, the group that included his brother Douglas, who played drum and sung and his vocalist sister Paula, released a single.
By then, Plaxico was already abandoning the r&b of B.T. Express and Kool & the Gang for the jazz-fusion of Return to Forever and Weather Report. After he saw RTF’s great bassist, Stanley Clarke, play an acoustic version of the instrument, he did an exhaustive trip backwards through the history of jazz.
College at Northeastern Illinois was a disappointment for Plaxico, despite the number of celebrated classmates, including the late saxophonist Art Porter, Chicago drummer Greg Rockingham, and bassist Kenny Davis, who would later join Plaxico into the New York M-Base group.
“For me that college was just an extension of my high school,” Plaxico explained why he left the school early. “I was already playing with Von Freeman, and he gave me more of the education I needed to know. I didn’t feel like I could learn anything there.”
It was Wynton Marsalis that first called Plaxico to New York to work in 1980. He joined the legendary saxophonist Dexter Gordon in ’82 and the historic Jazz Messengers the following year. All the while his roommate, Coleman, was developing the unique M-Base sound.
“M-Base hadn’t even started when I met Cassandra,” Plaxico said when asked how he met the diva. “It was at a jam session in New York, and I remember we were playing “A Foggy Day, and I became suspicious of this lady with this deep voice, because around that time there were some transvestites hanging in New York.”
With his suspicion alleviated, he developed a lasting friendship with the singer. When Coleman came home raving about a deep-throated singer he had heard, the bassist informed him that he knew all about her.
“It was Steve Coleman who heavily influenced all of us on being original, including Cassandra, and I’ve been so happy for her as she has become so big.”
However, Plaxico feels his seven-year tenure with Wilson will soon becoming to an end. It’s an ironic result of the release of “Melange.” “Once you start playing your own music, it’s pretty hard to go back to a supporting role,” Plaxico reasoned, “especially on the instrument that I play where I usually don’t even get a chance to show what I can do.”