Jazz, R&B and ‘sophistifunk’: James Mtume’s greatest recordings

The biological son of saxophonist Jimmy Heath, brought up by Dizzy Gillespie sideman James Forman, James Mtume was raised in jazz. His first appearance on record was on the 1969 album Kawaida, credited to his uncle, drummer Albert Heath – and on subsequent reissues to Herbie Hancock or Don Cherry, both of whom perform on it.

Ma, veramente, Kawaida is Mtume’s album: he wrote every track bar one, and it was his interest in the pan-Africanist theories of Maulana Karenga that informed the project. It ranges from intense free jazz to more becalmed modal outings: Baraka falls into the latter category, a perfect introduction.

Mtume first came to prominence as percussionist in Miles Davis’ early 70s band, which was still causing controversy decades later – for years, it seemed no Davis documentary was complete without someone, usually critic Stanley Crouch, decrying them as either a cluttered noise or a craven capitulation to commercial forces. It has to be said, there exist more obviously craven capitulations to commercial forces than the music on 1974’s incredible Get Up With It, an album Mtume is all over. Listen to his congas fluttering, as one writer put it, “like bats” during the stunning, subdued, ambient-inspiring Duke Ellington tribute He Loved Him Madly – but let’s go with the track named in his honour, which Mtume powers along.

Saxophonist Sonny Rollins recorded it first, Mtume’s own 1977 version went on for 22 minuti, but the best take on his Afrocentric jazz tribute to Ancient Egypt might be the one on Lonnie Liston Smith’s Cosmic Echoes album: a blissful eight-minute drift, powered by an insistent bassline, garlanded with spacey synth and electric piano.

Just as his career as a R&B songwriter and producer was taking off, Mtume put out one final burst of spiritual, Afrocentric jazz, the album Rebirth Cycle. Never reissued legally and unavailable on streaming services, a bootleg or YouTube are your only real options, but it’s worth checking out: the lengthy version of Sais is great, and the collection of shorter, soul-influenced tracks on side two – including Umoja – are fabulous, complete with vocals from Jean Carne of Don’t Let It Go to Your Head fame.

Recruited for Roberta Flack’s band, Mtume made it his business to reignite the singer’s relationship with troubled duet partner Donny Hathaway, encouraging them to record his ballad The Closer I Get to You together. A huge hit in 1978, it paved the way for an album-length follow-up to 1972’s Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, but Hathaway’s erratic behaviour caused Mtume to temporarily abandon the sessions: hours after taping his vocal on Back Together Again, Hathaway returned to his hotel and killed himself. It seems extraordinary that such a transcendent, life-affirming piece of music could have emerged from such desperate circumstances, but Back Together Again is 10 minutes of euphoric disco glee.

As the 70s turned into the 80s, Mtume and songwriting/production partner Reggie Lucas – another former Miles Davis alumnus – transformed singer Stephanie Mills from a Broadway star, who spent five years in the cast of The Wiz, into an R&B chart regular. The four albums they made with her are packed with highlights – What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’, Starlight, Two Hearts – but the commercial peak was the Grammy-winning Never Knew Love Like This Before: pillow-soft, lushly orchestrated mid-tempo disco, inspired by the birth of Lucas’ first child. A few years back it was used, to heartbreaking effect, in the second series of Pose.

The debut album from Mtume’s own R&B project dealt in classy funk and luscious ballads – check out the oft-sampled Love Lock – but the group really hit its stride as disco gave way to the more electronic sound of boogie. The highlight of Mtume’s second album In Search of the Rainbow Seekers, So You Wanna Be a Star blends opulent strings, muted horns and Chic-ish guitar with sharp, needling synth. It would be intriguing to know if Mtume and Lucas had anyone specific in mind when they wrote the lyrics, which pick apart a celebrity heading for a fall (“your entourage sure looks shady”): whoever it’s about, the results are both sophisticated and sassy.

Before hooking up with Mtume and Lucas, Phyllis Hyman had worked with a succession of fantastic writers and producers – Skip Scarborough, Earth Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey and, on her heart-stopping sleaze anthem Loving You Losing You, Thom Bell. But the sound of 1981’s You Know How to Love Me is the definition of what Mtume called his “sophistifunk” style: rhythms aimed at the dancefloor, “pretty melodies”, a hint of jazz still lurking somewhere in the mix. It’s a toss-up as to whether the title track or Under Your Spell is the best thing here, but if the former deserved to be a far bigger hit – which was pretty much the story of the under-appreciated Hyman’s career – it nevertheless rightly became one of her signature songs.

Mtume didn’t endear himself much to the burgeoning hip-hop scene by loudly demanding in the late 80s that artists who were sampled got paid, but that didn’t seem to stop people actually sampling him: at the last count, Mtume’s biggest hit – a ballad that stripped his sound back to little more than a drum machine, a synth, a scattering of guitar and some dubby echo – has been borrowed over 100 volte, by everyone from Stetsasonic to Jennifer Lopez, but most famously on the Notorious BIG’s 1994 smash Juicy. Wrigley attempted to sue over the title, before Mtume explained to their lawyers the song had nothing to do with chewing gum – “it’s about oral sex” – an experience he later described as “one of the highlights of my life”.

Mtume’s Theater of the Mind album was effectively James Mtume’s farewell to the music industry. Almost entirely electronic, it sounded perfectly of the moment, but the cynical lyrics, unmistakably the work of a man who’d grown up in the politically militant Black Power era, suggested someone who’d had enough of pop in the 80s – MTV comes in for a bashing – and indeed of the Reagan 80s themselves. New Face Deli finds him railing against plastic surgery as a “cop out”, perhaps with one eye on the era’s biggest black star – “who said a big nose was ugly? Who said a thin nose is in?” He shifted into working in theatre the following year: R&B’s loss.

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