Each year in metropolitan Washington, one may expect the release of at least 100 albums featuring local artists. This makes the area one of the most active individual music centers outside the New York-Los Angeles-Nashville axis. Although a respectable number of artists record for major labels-Columbia, RCA, A&M and Warner Brothers-the local scene remains centered on small labels, some of them just one shot deals by artists or producers who believe.
Established groups like the Nighthawks and the Rosslyn Mountain Boys (who record for Adelphi, the area's major independent label) sell upwards of 10,000 copies of each album. One would hope for similar sales response to Terry Plumeri's "Ongoing" (Airborne ARC2), which is the finest jazz album released locally since Richie Cole's "Starburst" on Adelphi and Lloyd McNeill's Ascha series of a decade ago.
Plumeri is one of the most highly regarded young bass players in America: He is equally at home with jazz and classical bass and frequently performs with the National Symphony. In fact, the National Symphony String Quintet is featured on this album, along with nationally recognized guitarists John Abercrombie and Raplh Towner and Plumeri's constant local companions, drummer Michael Smith and pianist Marc Cohen.
There are two things that allow "Ongoing" to rise head and shoulders above most other recent jazz offerings. The most immediate is the sterling quality of the recording (done at Bias in Falls Church), with immaculate attention paid to highs and lows and featuring a clearly empathetic nix. It is a quality equivalent to Manfred Eicher's work at ECM; Bill McEroy's engineering, already highly praised in local music circles, has never been better.
The second distinctive quality in Plumeri's work is his obvious dedication to composition. With exceptions like Ellington and Mingus, most composers working in the jazz idiom do little more than delineate melodies or gets of changes, leaving the hard work to capable soloists. Plumeri is more intense and in control; he builds carefully, leaving some breathing room but always certain of his voicings and shadings, always definite in his intentions.
For example, "Bornless One," the opening composition, is built upon Michael Smith's marvelously fluid and rhytmic kalimba, an African thumb piano. Behind this celebration, Plumeri and Cohen set down sparse, mostly percussive, rather than melodic, statements. In addition, Plumeri's wordless vocals, mixed away back, give the piece an eerie, ghostly effect. It is a stunning cut, one that a listener is drawn back to time and time again.
On several numbers, including the title cut, Plumeri accents his bowed-bass technique, eloquent in establishing a plaintive or contemplative mood. "Ongoing" moves from a tightly defined structure to some spirited free playing and eventually into a straightahead jazz mode, complete with walking bass line. "Laura Rose," which could almost be a sound track, plays the ethereal acoustic guitar of Ralph Towner against John Abercrombie's electric, but unusually subtle, voicings.
Plumeri, both as a composer and player, never overextends his abilities or overpowers with mere technique. The constantly empathetic work of his players-all of whom obviously understand his intentions-leads to a very high level of music all around.
Danny Gatton has succeeded Roy Buchanan as the "Washington area guitarist with a reputation." That reputation-Lowell George of Little Feat and Al McKay of Earth, Wind and Fire both hold that Gatton is the finest and most versatile guitar player in America-did nothing for Buchanan; unless he's careful, Gatton could quickly trip down the same path, disappointing fans and champions alike. His second album, "Redneck Jazz" (NRG Records NLP9-2916), is pretty much a disaster, though one hears streaks of brilliance and many examples of Gatton's overpowering technique.
Unfortunately, there is a little feeling or life. One suspects it was hastily arranged, particularly when certain tracks have obviously bled into one another in the recording process. This does little for the clarity of Gatton's staccato exchanges with pedal steel master Buddy Emmons on Jack McDuff's classic "Rock Candy."
Also, there are too many vocals on "Redneck Jazz," which has too much of the roadhouse feel that Gatton would seem to want to get away from. Only on the relaxed (and totally instrumental) "Sax Fifth Avenue" and a joyful interpretation of Bob Dorough's catchy "Comin Home, Baby," does Gotton seem confident; and on the latter song, it's pianist Dick Heintze who really shines.
Part of the problem is a generally lethargic rhythm section. What Gatton needs-is the challenge of musicians who are at least close to his level of musicianship; Heintze and Emmons are the only ones in that category here. Gatton's ability to shift comfortably from jazz to country to rock to bluegrass and whatever else (he can play anything with strings, though his particular magic is on guitar) should make him a valuable contributor to the studio-sessionman scene. In the meantime, releasing an album like "Redneck Jazz" is a disappointment to his fans, and perhaps to himself as well.