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The 'James 'Plunky' Branch' Interview
By Kenny Love
(more articles from this author)
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Associated with some of the most widely recognizable names within the commercial entertainment industry, encompassing both music and film, James "Plunky" Branch has done a lot more than simple elbow- rubbing with such icons as; Bill Cosby, Ray Charles, Patti Labelle, and The Pointer Sisters.

He has also recently released his new CD (his 14th!) titled, "Saxy Mellow Moments," which is on his own N.A.M.E. Brand Records, and distributed by City Hall. A stellar musician and performer, he is, additionally, the fearless leader of Contemporary Jazz recording act, "Plunky & Oneness."

On a Fall evening, I had the pleasure of sharing a Q&A session with him regarding his far (and from where) he has come, to where he is headed. I believe you will, likewise, enjoy learning about this gentleman as I, indeed, have.

[Kenny Love] Okay, let's first begin by learning how you got the name, 'Plunky'. (grins)

[PlunkyB] Well, the name does not have a musical origin. When I was a newborn, my father would toss me in the air and coo, "Plunky-Plunky-Plunky," and I, in turn, would laugh. Then, whenever people came over to see me, he would tell them, "If you want to see him smile, just say 'Plunky', which they did, and which I did. The nickname just stuck with me. All my life, I've been known as 'Plunky'. In school, all my teachers called me that. It has also been a good moniker for me as a performer. I guess it's just, sort of, unique.

[KL] And, how long has the act, 'Plunky & Oneness', been together?

[PB] Well, I have had a band for the past 28 years. It started out in San Francisco as a project called 'Juju', back in 1972. In 1975, we migrated back to New York, then down to Richmond, Virginia, my hometown. Soon afterward, we changed the name to 'Oneness of Juju'. And still later, it became 'Plunky & Oneness of Juju'. Lastly, around 1990, it was shortened to simply 'Plunky & Oneness'.

[KL] Please elaborate on the various states that affected each name change.

[PB] Well, the evolution of the name reflects certain changes in the music, philosophy and personnel. 'Juju' was a group that featured a fusion of African, Afro-Cuban, and Avante Garde Jazz music. It was, basically, my wild and screaming, John Coltrane- influenced sax playing over a bed of Afro-Cuban percussion, piano, and vibraphone. It was a high energy, political, and spiritual musical experience. The name, 'Juju', also refers to a West African religion, much like Voodoo, as well as refers to a modern Nigerian Pop music and the inherent spirituality in all African Music.

[KL] As New York can be quite forthright regarding acceptance or non-acceptance of artists, how was the band and its unique style received there?

[PB] When we moved to New York, 'Juju' had an impact on the 'Loft Jazz' scene, which was going strong in the early 70's. Ours was such a high energy and politically-sincere music that people in NYC were just amazed and taken with our unique sound. Ornette Coleman took us under his wing and became a kind of mentor, allowing us to stay at his place and work in his gallery and create our music.

[KL] And, when did you all return to Richmond?

[PB] In 1975. Eventually, the group influenced the music scene of the Richmond- Washington, DC area. But the area also had an effect on our music as well, influencing us to incorporate more R&B elements into our repertoire and our compositions. So, we changed the name to 'Oneness of Juju' to reflect the fact that all of the music which we were incorporating still had that same spiritual element, the same rhythmic intensity and motivating essence.

[KL] So, given your musical background, one would tend to believe your career also includes your being a college Music Education major and educator. Is that correct?

[PB] Actually, I attended Columbia University in New York, but was, instead, a Chemistry major. I left school to pursue my musical career. I have, however, taught music and have been an instructor at two universities in Richmond, as well as a guest lecturer at a number of schools. But, these opportunities have arisen out of my experiences with touring, producing, and performing. Being on the road and performing music is an education within itself. You can not only become a musicologist, but also a businessman. In order to survive out there (on the road), you have to be a psychologist, agent, comedian, politician, banker, loner, and above all, lucky.

[KL] In the past, your material has run a very diversified gamut, often crossing the genres of R&B, and even Rap. But, with the new release, I've noticed that you seem to be narrowing the focus somewhat.

[PB] I still do a wide variety of music. However, I now try to adhere to a more cohesive presentation. Yet, until recently, I produced recordings that contained many different styles all on the same disc, including jazz, funk, reggae, rap and soul. Now, I am more likely to produce work that is more specifically targeted to a particular audience, or the recording will have a specific mood and use.

[KL] Such as with 'Saxy Mellow Moments'.

[PB] Yes, that's a perfect example. And, as the name implies, it is a complete recording of mellow music which sets a mood for love, relaxation, and mellowness.

[KL] I know that it's only been released a few weeks, but how is it doing for you so far?

[PB] It has been very well received, and is already being played in regular rotation on 35 stations across the country, as well as in London and Germany.

[KL] You've also produced quite a number of recordings...what does 'SMM' bring that count to?

[PB] 'SMM' is my 14th album and I will be releasing two new albums after the first of the new year.

[KL] Wow! That is, indeed, quite a catalog that few major label artists can boast of, especially, with one particular label, isn't it?

[PB] Yes, but I record for my own label, N.A.M.E. Brand Records, which is a big plus. Some of my recordings were also done for two other labels, Strata-East Records and Black Fire Records. One recording was also released on the Budah- Sutra Label.

[KL] What are you hoping to accomplish with 'Saxy Mellow Moments' that you haven't with previous releases?

[PB] With 'SMM', I hope to be able to show a mellow side to my approach to music while getting a wider audience to become aware of it and my group. I hope that people will hear it and want to see the group perform live, and I also hope that they will take an opportunity to check out my earlier recordings and even want to hear my new works.

[KL] Okay, this is where I get to the star-studded stuff. (smiles) What's it been like on tour with such entertainers as Ray Charles, Patti Labelle, etc.?

[PB] All of my touring and major concert work has been a gas! So many stories, so much music, so many cheering audiences, and so much love shared by the musicians. I have actually opened many concerts for some of the biggest names in black music, and have toured with Bobby Byrd (formerly with James Brown) all over Europe. I also performed with African superstars, Fela A. Kuti of Nigeria and Asante from Ghana. And, I am extremely grateful and blessed to have had such rewarding experiences.

[KL] Into, yet, another direction...Bill Cosby...Fat Albert Incarnate have done what many, if not most, musicians can only hope to dream about... playing in the studio band of a major television show with one of the major entertainers of all time! How did that all happen?

[PB] Bill Cosby's musical director for 25 years has been Stu Gardner, who happens to be from Richmond. Stu gave me my chance to work with the Cosby show music.

[KL] Hey, I'm all for a little nepotism. (grins) I've always been interested to learn how the music we hear is coordinated with television shows, as far as synching up the audio to video, and I'm sure our readers would be interested in this process as well.

[PB] Interestingly enough, when we were doing the music for the shows, we recorded it in Washington DC, though the show was taped in New York. The producers would send the show's video down to Stu and he and his partner, Art Liszi, would write the musical bridges and segues. A week before each show would air, we would go into the studio and add the music. It was all quite an experience and very rewarding to work on what was, at the time, the Number one rated show in the country.

[KL] Touring...namely, Stateside vs. Overseas...any advantages or disadvantages to either?

[PB] Well, yes. European audiences tend to be more educated about the music. Even soul, jazz, and blues are "studied about" over there. On my European tours, I meet people and musicians who know all about the history of the music and even about the session players for the recordings. The audiences in Europe do not take the music for granted, I guess, because they know that it is not always readily available.

[KL] Yes, I've heard this very same thing for quite some time.

[PB] They also tend to treat musicians with more respect, and I guess that comes from having a tradition of Classical music and the arts in general. In Africa, the music tends to be more of a communal experience, with the audiences becoming a part of the performance.

[KL] Your video, 'I Can't Hold Back'...was that the first one you filmed?

[PB] Yes, 'I Can't Hold Back' was the first full fledge video I did. But these days, I am shooting more and more of my gigs in digital video in order to be able to do more things with video, on the Internet, on enhanced CDs, and on television. Digital video is the next big wave, especially, as more people are getting broadband Internet access.

[KL] Okay, I've put it off for as long as I can...what is your assessment of the current shakeups and shakedowns that seem to be ongoing within the commercial music industry?

[PB] Well, there is so much going on that it can be more than a little disconcerting. With the mergers and over-consolidation of the major companies, both record companies and radio entities, there are profound changes in the offing, even if there were no new media making waves. But, of course, there are the online music delivery systems, production tools, and promotion possibilities that spell a whole new vision for music and entertainment.

[KL] So, who's, potentially, looking victorious to you in the aftermath?

[PB] I think that the major corporations have the most to lose and feel most threatened by the new e-systems.

[KL] Yes, in fact, they have their entire 'way of life' to lose, if I may apply that analogy to this sector of the industry. One of my favorite film stars, Clint Eastwood, has a line in one of his movies, 'Heartbreak Ridge' that goes, "Gentlemen! Life as you know it has ended." I believe this line best sums up the music industry, with particular respect to the labels formerly known as 'major' entities.

[PB] But these same companies have the most resources to capitalize on these new technologies as well.

[KL] True.

[PB] Yet, they have been slow to develop innovations because they have been doing so well with the old ways that they, primarily, controlled. And, as a result, they are in a reactionary position.

[KL] They also made two critical mistakes...the first being that they didn't take the Internet seriously and believed it was a fad, primarily due to their 'old' way of doing things, and the second being that, until recently, they obviously considered musicians too mentally challenged to grasp technology to produce such great results so quickly. They really should have awaken back in the early '90's when production technology became so affordable, and artists began producing comparable major label quality product. This, kind of, reminds me of the mother hen that worked so diligently, asking who would help her get the garden ready for winter, and all the other animals refused. Then, when the harvest was ready, all wanted to eat, but she denied them a seat at the table.

[PB] And, on the other hand, the independent musicians and innovative media presenters have really shaken things up and, perhaps, let certain genies out of the lamps, so to speak. And, who knows what is just around the corner, in terms of new technologies, new delivery models, new media, new music, and new market strategies? It's an exciting time, but it is also an unnerving time for music and entertainment.

[KL] So, out of all these organizations bickering and fighting over what, how, when, where, and the way things should be conducted and occur within the music industry, if you had to declare a winner based on what you have seen thus far, on whom would you bestow the declaration? (chuckles)

[PB] (Smiles) Actually I believe that the winner will be the audiences and the music lovers, because I think that there will just be so much more good music that is well produced. But, I'm an innovator at heart and non-purist musician. So, I am happy to play with new instruments and new toys and I am overjoyed that the means of production have come down in costs to where many musicians and songwriters can now produce music in their project studios that competes in quality with the most expensive studios in the world.

[KL] Okay.

[PB] Music today, also enjoys the benefit of being digitally recorded and distributed far and wide at a lower cost per song. So, again, I think that it is the music lover who, ultimately, wins. As long as there is some way for the music's audience to find the quality stuff and not be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of what is available.

[KL] Given the affordable technological and musical accessibility you now have as an independent artist, is there any amount of money you would consider in exchange for releasing 'N.A.M.E. Brand' to a major label as a subsidiary? I guess that's a nice way of asking, "Would Ya Sell Out?" (laughs)

[PB] Yes, I would if the right situation comes along because that would free me up to become more specialized again. But the main ingredient would not be the amount of money, but the amount of artistic control and freedom I would acquire by doing so, along with which services and resources would be placed at my disposal. And no, I wouldn't "sell out," but I might allow an outside entity to "buy in" to my line of products (recordings) and partner with me in order to advance my production capabilities, and to promote my name and image so that I could tour at a higher level. And, in this day and age of mergers and consolidation, no company is too large to be bought out, or partnered with.

[KL] I'm in much agreement with you on this point... Okay, final question...any plans of releasing other artists on 'N.A.M.E. Brand'?

[PB] I have already released one CD on Scott Harlan, a Fusion bassist from the Washington DC area, and we will be releasing his second CD in the first quarter of 2001. We will also release a CD on African percussionist, Asante, next year. Additionally, we are starting a whole new line of New Age music called 'Nubian Age Music'. For this line, in addition to my own recordings, we have just completed the production of two female artists, Ivy Okolo Shadi of Washington, and Dr Ife Aisha of Chicago. I have also begun producing a rapper who goes by the name of Pure Black and I am looking at some other vocalists, as well as doing some funk and hip-hop. So, I have a lot on my plate to keep me busy, and to look forward to.

[KL] That's fantastic! Plunky, it's been a most pleasurable and informative evening with you. I'm looking forward to experiencing much more uplifting work from you.

[PB] Likewise, and thanks.

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