In the past few years, Antibalas has been praised for bringing African beats to the U.S. and Budos Band has gotten critical acclaim for combining African rhythms with soul-jazz grooves. That’s the kind of music Richmond’s Plunky Branch was playing in the 70s. Plunky and his band Oneness of Juju had a minor hit that’s stilled played by DJs today with African Rhythms. The sound mixed Plunky’s expressive saxophone solos with African music and funk. When the band became Plunky and Oneness of Juju and then simply Plunky and Oneness, he made an emphasis on bringing nearly all forms of African-American music into the mix. A second small hit came in 1982 with the funk masterpiece Everyway But Loose. His jazz credentials are also unquestionable. He played with Ornette Coleman, Pharaoh Sanders, Sun Ra, and countless others. Coltrane’s influence screams on Plunky’s early recordings. Plunky gives a short history of these bands and his music in the Intro to his new album Plunky on Fire.
Here in D.C., Plunky’s emphasis on percussion made him a go-go progenitor alongside bands like Black Heat, the Young Senators, and Chuck Brown himself. And there are actually four tracks on the new album Plunky of Fire that feature small snippets of go-go. One is a 37-second clip and the others are placed on the ends of other songs providing interesting contrasts to the music that comes immediately before.
Plunky on Fire is actually Plunky and Fire. Jamiah “Fire” Branch is Plunky’s son and frequent collaborator in recent years. He co-produced the album and co-wrote all of it’s songs. The rhythm tracks are Fire’s and even with Plunky’s words, playing and singing, this is, in many ways, a producer’s album defined by Fire’s programmed beats. Working with his son seems to be a conscious choice to help stay with the times. The music Plunky is most interested in at the moment seems to be contemporary R&B. Fire’s style emphasizes the slick. The jazz influence now is far more smooth than free. Though the funk underpinnings of Plunky’s sound are always there. Too Funky for Words, the album’s first song, illustrates this with Plunky playing laid back saxophone lines over a slow and funky bassline with a sung chorus with male and female vocals. When the song is reprised as Too Funky with Words, Plunky’s rap-talk makes the Parliament influence explicit.
Though the mellow R&B grooves dominate, Plunky isn’t going to make a record that doesn’t have sounds from at least a few genres. Charlayne Chip Page Green adds female lead vocals on While It Lasts and Inside these Walls. International Love is the most African song here, it sounds influenced by Nigerian sounds. Insights brings back the percussion with Plunky using a spoken voiceover on top of go-go and other tracks to explain the concept of groove.
Plunky’s creative juices are still flowing after decades of playing music. It’s gratifying to see him continue to continue to change his sound and incorporate whatever is moving him in the present. The album should appeal to his longtime fans as well as fans of smooth jazz. He still plays regularly around Richmond including a Friday night gig at the Martini Kitchen and Bubble Bar. Check out a live show or the album to see a constantly evolving artist.