Album of the Week: Oneness of Juju ― African Rhythms 1970​-​1982

Album of the Week returns with a look at the tremendous Oneness of Juju compilation out via Strut Records.
By    July 16, 2020

Will Schube won’t enter your loft unless it has a hot tub.

As far as mythological figures in the jazz scene go, Plunky Branch is as good as it gets. Sure, Plunky isn’t his real first name―the saxophonist switched things up, he was born James Plunky Branch―but there’s something about his moniker that immediately defines the aura he presents. Plunky led Oneness of Juju, an essential and relatively unheralded jazz group active from the ‘70s through the 1980s. Juju spanned the country throughout their tenure, settling in San Francisco, before a stop in New York, and, eventually Richmond, Virginia. Seemingly everywhere they went they were at the center of a scene, and UK label Strut has done a phenomenal job archiving their run in an expansive compilation of their work with the legendary Strata-East label.

While the group isn’t as celebrated within the jazz canon as they should be, recent years have been favorable to Plunky and his band. Last year, Vinyl Me, Please re-issued a bunch of their records, and the co-sign from Strut follows the label’s initial re-issue of this project back in 2001. Galactic funk and cosmic jazz are en vogue, and few did it better the first time around than Oneness of Juju.

The fun thing about compilations such as this one is how deeply you can fall into the world that Oneness of Juju occupied. There were the early days with South African exile Ndikho Xaba, from which you can jump into Xaba’s work with his band, The Natives. Of course, Plunky handles the saxophone on that group’s seminal work, too. From there, you can dive deeper into the history of South African jazz, or you can traverse back to the states and find the ever growing link between African rhythms and American jazz. Yes, Nigerian legend Fela Kuti is the forever king of afrobeat, but in the States, Pharoah Sanders, for example, was interpolating African ideology into his work. While the comparison between Oneness and the ‘70s cosmic jazz scene are apt, The San Francisco-based group found a new scene when Plunky departed for New York in the mid-’70s. 

Because Oneness of Juju played with a variety of styles typically outside the domain of jazz, Plunky and his shifting group of players fit in nicely among the musicians of New York’s loft jazz scene. The subgenre and philosophy developed once the Newport Jazz Festival relocated to Rhode Island. A community of players established the New York Musicians’ Jazz Festival and performed in lofts, at parks, on stages―pretty much wherever people would gather. The scene’s musical structure mirrored this looseness, and Plunky’s hypnotic blend of jazz, R&B, soul, and more straightforward pop music led the group to be a leading force in this revolutionary approach to jazz. Operatic vocals worked in tandem with Brazilian drum grooves and avant-garde jazz solos. In lesser hands, the vision crumbles into cacophony. Plunky’s brilliance was in his ability to know just how much leeway to give to his band. 

The group’s dynamic approach to genre fits better in our age than it did back in the ‘70s, which is why Strut’s brilliant compilation betrays the work of a modern day band. There’s no Red Hot Chili Peppers without Juju & the Space Rangers’ “Got to Be Right On it.” Flea’s style is deeply informed by the slap-happy bassline on the track. Plunky liked to shape his music based on where he was located. After a move to Richmond, Virginia, he had a revelation: “I saw myself as a cultural warrior. We studied about Africa and tried to infuse our music with an African spirit. We realized that, if we put a backbeat to the Afro-Cuban rhythms, people in Richmond and Washington D.C. could be drawn into it; it didn’t change anything about our message.”

At 24 tracks, the compilation does an exhaustive job cultivating Plunky’s identity. He’s one of jazz’s most important figures, but like so many legends ahead of their time, his flowers are slowly beginning to accumulate once again. Oneness of Juju is future music. It was in the 1970s, and it still is today.

There’s no other way to explain the radiant ecstasy of “The End of the Butterfly King,” which teeters around an off-kilter drum pattern and hypnotic piano phrasings but always feels within reach. It’s a brilliant moment from one of jazz’s most exciting thinkers. The compilation is titled African Rhythms 1970-1982, which does a solid enough job of describing an aspect of this music. But Oneness of Juju and Plunky Branch’s various entities excelled in the limitless reach of his scope. In order to move jazz as far forward as he did, Plunky Branch’s Oneness of Juju searched far past any established horizons. The result is thrilling: a timestamp from the ‘70s, but belonging elsewhere, too, in realms we’ve yet to imagine.

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