The best moments on Chuck Loeb: Plain 'n' Simple are probably during the title track, a laid-back groove with no words, whose melody seems to intone the phrase "plain and simple." The closest comparison we can draw is to the classic "Satin Doll," which can sound like a tired chestnut in the wrong hands. Plain 'n' Simple (the song) shares the quality that defines a great performance of "Satin Doll," which is that the musicians sound as if they are carefully crafting each note, reluctantly being pushed along by a slow, steady rhythm. Playing a song with this kind of deliberation is one of the hardest things to do right, musically. Loeb and crew prove their musicianship here more than on almost any other song, although the Ellington-esque ballad "It's About You" is a strong contender. Because the band includes Pat Bianchi on organ, songs tend to take on a seriously bluesy, almost gospel quality at times. Loping swing numbers are balanced by searing bop burners, as evidenced by tracks like "Organeleptic" and "Bebop Betty." Loeb is rooted in tradition, doing his version of rhythm changes and what sounds like a new melody on top of "Sugar" for Plain & Simple. At all times original, but drawing from the classics, Loeb demonstrates that he's a student of jazz music.
Guests on the record, outside the core trio that plays on all tracks, include saxophonist Eric Marienthal and Carmen Cuesta. The arrangements featuring horns are tasteful, but only include brief solos from Marienthal and others. It's a guitar-feature, after all! Bianchi's organ work deserves special mention. Chuck Loeb: Plain 'n' Simple is worth a purchase for any aspiring jazz organist, or listeners who appreciate the likes of Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and Shirley Scott. Bianchi's rippling, melodic, right-hand is matched by solid rhythmic comping, and a creative harmonic sense that can almost make you forget this is Loeb's record. Bianchi reminds us why we love the organ trio format more than almost any other ensemble in jazz history. The weakest moments on the record are the vocal numbers, turned in by Cuesta and Lizzy Loeb, who we assume is a daughter/cousin/sister type of relation. Cuesta's number is a nice latin jazz tune that fails to capture interest or create any emotional highs and lows. It's a fine feature for a good singer, but the band plays in such a restrained way compared to the rest of the record that Cuesta comes across sounding like the opening act you sit through in anticipation for the main event. Featuring Lizzy Loeb on "Skylark" is a bad match, considering her voice lacks the kind of depth needed to make the song work. She would have been better matched to a lilting tune the likes of Cuesta's feature, where precision and fast phrasing make the difference. Hearing Lizzy Loeb try and pull off the long, sustained notes in "Skylark" just exposes what is obviously a talent that need maturing. Again, a stark contrast to the wonderfully shop-worn sounds of experienced players that fill the rest of this record.
Chuck Loeb: Plain 'n' Simple isn't pushing the musical envelope, and we don't expect that was Loeb's intention. It's a collection of songs paying homage to classic soul jazz and the organ-trio sound one heard frequently in the '60s and '70s, which is harder and harder to find. The warmth and pep of Loeb's group is matched by their solid, in-the-groove solos on original compositions that sound like they were pulled out of the classic Blue Note library. Guitarists and organists will find Chuck Loeb: Plain 'n' Simple to be a virtual textbook, and casual listeners will be hard pressed to find a tighter small ensemble sound.