West Side Stories
Lonnie Plaxico has never been afraid to mix advanced rhythms and harmonies with R&B. For his 11th album as a leader, the bassist looks back to his Chicago upbringing, incorporating all the influences of his youth. But West Side Stories is something less than the sum of its parts.
The title tune blows in like a cyclone, with an elusive theme and knotty playing from Plaxico’s quintet. The urgent, constantly shifting rhythm section is superb. Trumpeter Alex Norris’ free-swinging, streetwise attack also stands out. But although the bubbling “Funkadelic” and staccato “Duke It Out” are cut from the same cloth, they never quite reach the bar set at the album’s start.
As the disc constantly changes gears, Plaxico’s choice of material becomes questionable. “Climb Every Mountain” overcomes a certain dullness by taking on a zero-g freefall feel, but Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” is simply unsuitable for a jazz setting, and abstraction can’t save it.
Four tracks with vocalist Cassandra Wilson are derailed by clunky production. In a cover of Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer,” Wilson, paired with Steve Coleman on alto sax, isn’t given room to breathe. Instead, Coleman casually stomps all over her. Later, David Lee Jones does the same in a smooth-jazz context (“Your Love Speaks to Me”) and “I Want It to Be” buries Wilson in a repetitive synth riff, leaving a fine opportunity largely wasted.