So, what does Plunge sound like? On their latest, Tin Fish Tango, there's an airiness that you'd expect from a group with no drummer or chording instrument. (Even the drummer-less Jimmy Giuffre 3 had a guitar or a piano.) But there are often strong grooves — the title tango or the second-line NOLA parade rhythm of "Huff-a-Round" (which adds tubist Kirk Joseph of the Dirty Dozen Brass band). Sometimes horn and bass set up an ostinato behind the soloist. Even a free improv like "Lost to the Vapors" — which starts with just bass and saxophone trading a figure — finds its way to a groove. And, at times, there's just soloist over swinging walking bass. Plunge also know how to use minimal means to sound large — when saxophone joins the unison blues line of trombone and bass on "Strollin' with Sidney," they create the illusion of a four-piece. The same holds for the brawny bebop line of the album closer, "Diddlin'," with trombone and saxophone over walking bass, or when a sustained bowed bass moans like a backing chorus. And there's always that counterpoint — two or three independently spinning lines, somehow holding it together in some form that you can feel but not quite place — or count.
A good example is "Love's Wildest Talent," which tantalizes by walking the line between composition and improvisation. The long three-part theme has a sweet, unsettled, elegiac feel — trombone on top, tenor counterline in the middle, plucked bass spelling out chords at the bottom. But then it became a free balancing act between tenor and trombone; two lines in an attraction-repulsion tension, two sides of a love affair balancing on the fulcrum of that bass — the harmonic structure clearly present, but ambiguous.
McGrain describes the piece as a hybrid chord structure, triads stacked on triads. Or, to put it more simply: "It's in two keys at the same time." Thus its elusiveness. "It's a difficult piece to improvise on, because you have to understand the harmony. We're playing within harmonic structures, but they're very complex harmonic structures."
McGrain likes to cover a "fairly broad spectrum" of writing. "There's tunes like 'Huff-a-Round,' which is just a very simple bass line and one chord, and we just jam, passing things back and forth. Then there's something like 'Missing Mozambique,' which is also a very traditional set of chord changes. From there you get pieces like 'Love's Wildest Talent,' which is fairly complex, and then, you know, free improvisation." It also helps that he's a constantly engaging player, with a broad, warm tone and sharp rhythmic articulation
McGrain headed to New Orleans originally, he says, because despite the extensive writing he was doing, "I wasn't playing as much as I wanted to. New Orleans was a logical place to head towards." Despite the blight of Katrina, and years of economic woes before and since, it's still a place where you can play in front of a live audience seven nights a week.