A lot of jazz fans, particularly those who worship anything that involves ex-members of M-Base, are going to love this album. It has complex arrangements, highly skilled playing and, as the title suggests, is a creative mélange of many different styles. There are rough funk numbers, bittersweet ballads, frenetic post-bop jams and the odd Latin flourish thrown in for good measure. Somehow though, it doesn’t quite add up. There is much to admire but it fails to endear itself — certainly not in the way that talent such as this should.
Plaxico is an important figure on the current jazz scene. Still irritatingly young, despite 20 years as a key bass player — for Blakey and Chet Baker in his early days and for any number of big names more recently. He is best loved, if not best known, as the man responsible for the remarkable, if somewhat austere, arrangements on Cassandra Wilson’s popular and critically acclaimed song collections. This release is also quite closely scored and arranged — a mixed blessing, as it happens.
He has tried to unite a funk groove with the sudden time changes and complicated signatures of current post and hard bop stylings. Trumpet and sax are the prime vehicles for the latter half of the equation. Personally, I find the jitteriness and jumping about that the horns continually engage in very off-putting — but then I’m not as embarrassed by on the One jazz-funk or the less intricate fusion path as real jazzers are. Plaxico dabbled with more conventional Smoothness a few years back and had his wrists duly slapped. He is obviously not going to make that mistake again. The ballads are not a problem but the uptempo numbers have this stop-start feel and a tiresome harshness of tone.
Not too much of that to mar the opening cut, though. “Squib Cakes” is the old Tower of Power funk classic — played fairly straight if a little jazzier and featuring Lew Soloff from the old Blood, Sweat and Tears outfit. As a later track is called “T. O. P.” and uses the same approach, Plaxico must have a hitherto concealed fondness for the late-’60s/early-’70s jazz/rock/soul mix of both groups. I’ll run with him on TOP but BST never did it for me, and though Soloff is a fine trumpeter, they were also too overpoweringly brassy for my ears. All the horns here sound a bit like that, alternate trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and sax men Tim Ries and Marcus Strickland seem as one in their pursuit of the forceful and strident.
When the funk plays second fiddle to the post-bop, this is more noticeable. “Mélange” is, in fact, the worst culprit, though “Short Cake” comes close. How much of this is down to the players’ own style I am not sure, but my guess is that they were acting under orders. Plaxico was obviously wanting to inject “edge” into what might have been run-of-the-mill funk jamming. He succeeds rather too well. In fairness, the technical level of the solos is very high and those coming from the freer end of the scale will probably find this all as mellow as a vintage Port. In short spells I can handle it, “Paella” seems to me the pick of these numbers — a little Latin flow always helps — but that would have been enough.
If I react negatively to the horn section, the opposite is the case for the two keyboard players. George Colligan (piano/organ) is magnificent, particularly on Hammond, while newcomer Helen Sung (piano/electric piano) makes a contribution that will have you waiting eagerly for her first album. The churchy “Sunday Morning” is a stand-out track largely on account of Colligan, mind you it also has the best and least hectic of the trumpet and sax efforts. Pelt and Strickland lay down truly solid solos. Sung displays her dexterity on “Paella” and her tonal skills on “Darkness”. She handles the quick tempo with ease and is suitably delicate on the muted, Mingus-like “Darkness”. This urban impressionism is far and away my favourite cut — “Autumn in New York” meets “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”.
“Beloved” is the other ballad and is in the same mould, though less lovely as a melody. It features Plaxico on bowed bass, which he plays in a very classical style. His compositions may occasionally recall Mingus; his playing is his own. He actually solos very little on these tunes, which is unusual and a loss. Even the closing number “Windy City”, a tribute to his home town, finds him content to keep the groove flowing while others wrestle with the abrupt shifts in tempo that give the track a Marcus Miller, jazz-rock flavour.
It seems churlish to appear hostile to an album that is so inventive and well executed, all according to plan. Unquestionably, there are some very fine moments in Mélange and evidence of a keen intelligence at work. The parts never gelled into a satisfying whole, for me anyway. I greatly respect Plaxico and his talent; I’ll have to wait for a different project to truly relish it.