Friday, July 13, 2012

Viewer Mail: Plaxico and Practicing

This is a two part question from one of my former students at PSU:

I've been listening to Lonnie Plaxico Group Live at the Zinc Bar, and I'm wondering how thoroughly composed/arranged his tunes are. Like how much of your part during the head of any given tune is composed vs how much is improvised?
You've said before that you spent a significant period of time practicing anywhere from 4-8 hours per day. Since you are a proficient pianist, trumpeter, drummer, and composer, how have you divided your time in such a way that you progress/maintain a certain level in all of these regards? I'm having a hard time giving attention to each instrument I play in addition to making time for writing. 

Lonnie Plaxico is a pretty interesting musician. I first met him when
we both worked with trombonist Robin Eubanks in the late 90's. He was
one of the first people I interviewed when I started my
Plaxico grew up in the projects of Chicago, and started playing bass
in R&B cover bands when he was in his teens. When he first started, he
played completely by ear(he has perfect pitch) and admitted that he
didn't even know the letter names of the notes. As he got older, he
started playing upright bass and studied with local classical
teachers. Plaxico was fortunate to spend time as a sideman with Dizzy
Gillespie, Art Blakey, and Jack DeJohnette. He moved to New York City
while a member of Wynton Marsalis' band in 1982. He also spend maybe
20 years on and off with vocalist Cassandra Wilson( Plaxico got me in
her band in 1999; I stayed for about 2 years). He started his own band
in 2000; I was the first keyboardist in the band, and I played with
his band on and off for 4 or 5 years.

Plaxico's interests are extremely wide; he knows tons of jazz
standards, as well as a boatload of R&B tunes. His music is quite
unique and he draws on many elements, from jazz to funk to fusion to
gospel to MBase to pop. Plaxico writes his music by sequencing it on a
keyboard and printing out the charts using Logic. Much of the music is
composed, and it's very challenging to learn the parts. I had to
practice my parts a lot, and usually memorizing them was the only way
to play them effectively. The trumpet and saxophone parts are
particularly challenging. The band's first inception featured trumpet
great Lew Soloff, and even he was complaining at how strenuous the
parts were.( I showed the trumpet parts to another trumpet great,
Randy Brecker, and he said, "There's no way I'm playing that!")

Plaxico is very specific about when the parts need to be played. In
that respect, he's coming more from a funk and R&B perspective, and
maybe sort of an African perspective, where everyone has their role;
it's not just everyone improvising. Particularly in the rhythm
section, the parts are pretty set. Whomever is the soloist is left
alone; however, the solo changes are so dense that most of us are
lucky to even get through a chorus! (In fact, Plaxico doesn't write
the changes, he writes voicings, so you have to kind of figure out
what the changes are on your own. Also, in the solo form, as well as
the heads, there might be 5 different chord changes in a measure, and
they are mostly polychords in the vein of Wayne Shorter's "Endangered
Species". So there aren't any ii-V-I type of progressions. It's hard!)
I found that Plaxico would basically leave you alone on your solos.
But if I played one wrong voicing, usually I would get a look from
Plaxico! (His ears are pretty ridiculous.He's one of those cats that
you could play most any standard and if he didn't already know it, he
would just hear his way through instantly.)

I really got a lot of inspiration from watching Plaxico develop his
own band. There was a good bit of work for the first few years; we
started with a week at the legendary Sweet Basil's in New York We also
toured Europe and the midwest of the U.S., and did a few stints in
Japan as well. Plaxico did one CD for Blue Note; unfortunately, Blue
Note didn't really "get" Plaxico's music, so they didn't support him
with enough vigor to make more happen for him. There were some more
recordings for European and Japanese labels. The last recording I
played on was "West Side Stories", which he released on his own label.
One thing I always appreciated about Plaxico was that he really didn't
ever get into the politics of the jazz scene(which might have actually
done more harm than good). He always wanted the guys that would play
his music the best. Age, or fame, or color was never an issue. I think
many promoters would try to get Plaxico to have bigger names in his
band. The problem was that the music was way too hard to have an "all
star" just come in and sit in. All of the music required as much
practice as a classical etude!(I remember it took me about two months
of daily practice to be able to play the piano music for "West Side
Stories". And I still couldn't play it!)

Speaking of practicing, on to your next question. Yes, when I was in
my early 20's, I practiced every day between 4 to 8 hours. I also had
between 3 to 6 gigs a week. I was mostly practicing piano; since I
started piano later in my life, I felt as though I had to play a bit
of catch up. I used to keep a practice journal and I had very specific
goals. Over the years, as I got busier with touring, and then more
recently, being a full time educator and father, I have had to focus
my practice time in a much more streamlined way. I'm lucky to find 10
minutes in a day to either practice one instrument, or write some
music. I have to "steal" time; for example, if my son is taking too
long to put on his shoes, I will pick up my trumpet for 5 minutes and
work on a ii V lick, or maybe work on a new song.

Always remember that real "practicing" is different from just
"playing". It should be tedious if it's really worthwhile. Much of
practicing is not fun. It takes discipline. I personally don't have a
problem with people practicing while they watch TV! If you are doing
maintenance exercises, or warm ups, or something like that, I think
that watching TV might make the "medicine easier to swallow, " if you
know what I mean.

I think it's good to have short and long term goals for practice.
There are certain things that might only take a few practice sessions
to master. There might be other things that take years. There are some
things that you might never master, but just the act of trying will
make you a better musician. There are some things I've been working on
for 20 years! You have to look at music as a lifetime pursuit.

It's hard to budget time, but you have look at it in almost a Tony
Robbins Self Help kind of way. What is really important to you? Is it
more important to go to the coast on the weekend and hang out with
your friends? Or is spending some time on your instrument more
important? Maybe you could do both. Still, you might find that
spending quality time on your instrument means there are other things

"You CAN find the time to practice!"
that you won't have time for.

Before there were portable MIDI keyboards, I used to be frustrated
with the fact that while I was touring, I couldn't get in the hours on
the piano. What I ended up doing was trying to practice in my head, or
try to transcribe or compose without an instrument. So all those hours
on the trains or planes or buses weren't a total waste. One thing you
might try the next time you are waiting for a bus or driving is to
pick a song and try to hear bass lines in your head. And then try to
hear solo lines in your head. I do this almost without even thinking
about it now. Music has to start in your head, and then go through
your body into your instrument.

Remember, it's important to be patient. And try spending small chunks
of time in a focused way, as opposed to 5 hours of unfocused noodling.
Maybe do 10 minutes, then take a break, then do another 10,'s like doing High Intensity Interval Training on your


  1. if my son is taking too long to put on his shoes, I will pick up my trumpet for 5 minutes and
    work on a ii V lick

    Aren't you worried Liam will develop some kind of weird Pavlovian response as a result?

    Seriously, though, this post is great.

  2. Always instructive and inspiring to read what you have to say about practicing! But man, just reading about Plaxico's music makes me tired . . .


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