Talkin’ bout Plunky

Posted on 23rd June 2016 in Journalism, R&B


Like any good saxophonist, J. Plunky Branch is long-winded. So some of lengthy conversation for my recent Style Weekly interview about his voluminous memoir didn’t make the paper.

I didn’t set out to be involved in African music. It sort of just happened for me. I started my first band [The Soul Syndicate] in college at Columbia University. I didn’t realize I was so Afrocentric, although I was very politically active, very left wing active at Columbia [University]. One of the guys in my first band had a picture of us playing at the Cheetah Club, one of the first discos in the 1960s in New York, all of the other pictures of the band, we dressed in all black or white ties, we looked like some kind of mafioso take-off, but in this picture, I’m standing there, leader of the band, I’m at the Cheetah Club and everybody else is dressed in that garb and I have on an African Dashiki. I was stunned to see that, I didn’t even remember that.

I went to San Francisco, really for political reasons, while I was in San Francisco, I got involved with an African musician [Ndikho Xaba], who was from South Africa, basically played with him for a couple of years. He was a South African expatriate, basically a political protester against the apartheid system there. And he taught me about African music. He had originally come here as an theater person, so he played music, but he was also very theatrical, very much an activist, so I got involved with that and learned about African music. My basic take-away from that was, in terms of African music and philosophy, was that music was more than just a play thing, more than just entertainment, it could be a political resource, a source of information … a motivator of people, in other words. But that was kind of a happenstance, I didn’t got to school for that, I didn’t plan for that, but I had a rich experience. Again, this is much more minutiae, much more detail than you want to hear about, and you see why my book is so lengthy.

After I left his group, I was part of music group doing the music for a play, by African nationalist by the name of Marvin X, a play called “The Resurrection of the Dead.” Basically, It was a ritual. I went from African music to an African ritual. Then after that I formed my own group called “JuJu,” and we studied African music. Again we lived the kind of life in San Francisco, where, for three, four five hours a day we are doing this ritualistic high energy African music, I recorded an album of it [Mesage from Mozambique], went to NY for a music festival, people were really taken by this because it was it was avant garde and it also had African Rhythm. It was kind of unique and kind of different for that time.

So later years, I forned my own group, came back to Richmond, again brought some of this philosophy back to Richmohnd. Richmond kind of trained me to go back to my R&B roots. Primarily beause Richmond was not New York or San Francisco, It wasn’t so open to the very progressive avant gard jazz. Later I ended up doing albums and tours with Bobby Byrd, toured in Europe … My life was very very interesting, but it was almost by step by step happenstance.

Many of your early records have become valuable. Why do you think that is?

One of the reasons is, not just the what of the music, not just the quality of the music or what the music says. A lot of it, in terms of determining value, is the rarity of the music and the rarity of the recording. If you have a Michael Jackson’s Thriller, even fifty years from now, it won’t be worth anything. There were 18 millon sold and probably 30 million printed. So it’s not going to have much value. But if you’ve got an early Plunky and Onenss album, the first pressing were usually 1,000 copies, and we’re talking worldwide. So when I got to London and I see “Message from Mozambique,” it might be literally 75 to 175 pounds for one of those album. It’s because it’s rare. I think, more than anything, it’s the rarity of it and the fact that I’m still at it.

Is there anything else?

One of the things I say in the preface of the book, is that they’re all kinds of people in this world, and everybody has a story. One of the thing I want to highlight is that I give thanks and respect and props to the people that allow me to operate like I’m some sort of beacon or I’m some sort of inspiring light. But for me, and I don’t want to sound cliche or overly humble, it really is the local people who sort of strive every day, the local musicians who sort of allow me to be up front person and claim all the credit, in all of the situations that I’ve had while, I’ve been the leader in just about every band I was in, clearly I couldn’t have done it without people allowed me to be the leader.

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Radio Madness

Posted on 8th May 2013 in Journalism, Radio
DJ Mark and Craig Belcher

DJ Marc and Craig Belcher


I’ve worked for newspapers, tv stations, web sites, but I’ve never spent meaningful time in front of a microphone at radio station before. A few weeks back, I finally got my chance. Michael Murphy, the host of WRIR’s Mellow Madness, let me guest host his long running music program. After a few week of practicing, I realized that playing music and talking at the same time wasn’t something I was going to get good at quickly. Fortunately, I was able to secure a professional (DJ Marc)  with years of experience to make me sound like someone who had done this before.

Here’s my playlist.

  • Completeness / Minnie Riperton
  • Mountains / Prince & The Revolution
  • Semi-First Class Seat / Mutiny
  • Spinning Wheel / Sammy Davis, Jr
  • 80’s Joint / Kelis
  • The Oak Tree / Morris Day
  • Hot Line To Jesus / Rance Allen Group
  • Sunday Morning People / Honey Cone
  • Take Me Lord / The Henley Family Gospel Singers
  • Love Won’t Let Me Wait / Major Harris
  • Sea Of Tranquility / Kool & The Gang
  • Please the Pleaser / First Cosins Jazz Ensemble
  • Twice (?uestlove’s Twice Baked Remix featuring Solange Knowles & The Roots) / Robert Glasper Experiment
  • Baby I Won’t / Skillz
  • Girl, I Think The World About You / Commodores
  • Holding Back The Years / Simply Red
  • Funkin’ For Fun / Parliament
  • Do You Love What You Feel/ Rufus
  • Ghetto life / Rick James
  • A Night To Remember / Shalamar
  • I’ll Keep My Light in My Window (with The Combo Barbaro) / Quantic Feat. Alice Russell
  •  Ain’t No Sunshine / The Dells
  • Sweet Talk / Jessie Ware
  • Dare Me / The Pointer Sisters
  • Shifting Gears / Johnny Hammond
  • Westchester Lady / Bob James
  • Seven Minutes Of Funk / Tyrone Thomas & The Whole Darn Family
  • Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone / Scatman Crothers

Wanna hear it? Here it go!



Lost and Found Singer

Posted on 30th November 2011 in Journalism, R&B

Here’s more of my chat with jazz songstress Gretchen Parlato. The rest of our talk can be found in the latest issue of Style Weekly, on stands now.

We were talking about the light and dark on the album. The song, “Holding Back the Years,” does that represent the dark or the light?

Ooooh that’s good. It’s both. That’s what really good about that piece and probably I would say all of them. Every piece probably has those elements. “holding Back the years,” is one that Robert Glasper suggested. And when he suggested it, I wasn’t sure about the song first, just because I knew the song obviously and I was a fan of it, but never really thought about singing it. I looked up the lyrics to make sure that it was relevant to me and I just fell in love with what that song could mean. I edited a few lines of one of the verses, by taking it out it had a more general theme, which like you mentioned, allowed it to be both light and dark. So even if you think of the chorus, “I’ll keep holding on,” that could mean darkness, some one is kind of clinging and stuck, holding on to something that is not there. Or its light, like I’ll keep holding on,” as if life is roller coaster, and you re just holding on and going along with it and and being open to the possibility and holding on to what you have in good way, moving through it and moving forward. Every time I sing it I can have a good twist with it, and be thinking about each side.

A lot of the songs have that, a lot of them on the album, I think al l of them have each elements of light, lights of … to it, as a performer I could kind approach it that way. It really it hopefully for the listener to feel it and experience for themselves and maybe every time you listen, you might hear it in a different way.

Which is kind of like life, most things that happen, you could see them from a different angle , maybe if there’s some space and time around the situation, you know? Someone lost their job, let’s say, or they didn’t get the job that they wanted, that became like this horrible thing in the moment. And then maybe, that leads them to some other profession in their life, some other field that they never thought they could do. And you look back on it, and think actually was was a good thing, because it led to something else. ‘ It’s really about life. Theses songs are really about much bigger and deeper issues in a really good way.

Did you talk with Mick Hugnall at all?

No, I don’t what he thinks of the song, or has even heard it or has any clue about it. That would be amazing. I would be curious to know if he approves of it. I hope so. But you never know. It’s always cool to know, if ever, they actually do hear the cover. I know with “Weak,” the composer, Brian Alexander Morgan, he ended up hearing the song, back in the myspace days, it could’ve been facebook, someone put up a video of the songs and he contacted me through one of these social networks. He really liked it. It’s a really cool think when you can get that kind of feedback from the source.

How do you process the feedback you get from critics? Are you bothered by reading it?

My belief with that, at least right now, is that, I think it is good to read it. I think it is good to see it and the process and the goal would be to allow it to …  kind of read it and kind of know where it comes from, consider the source, consider that everyone has an opinion. Have some compassion, I guess, for the writer, in a way where, meaning like, okay, who are they, what might they be hearing and how might they filter this music through their own experience. And then you kind of move on through that, take what you can with it, and there’s always a lesson it it, then move from it and know that it’s one moment that’s not a huge defining thing.

I guess that’s what people say to do with all kinds of feedback, whether its good or bad, this one thing is one person’s opinion, that can mean a lot, but there is a way to kind of let that go. Luckily, there been really positive feedback about this album, but there’s always going to be critics, and when that comes around, I think it’s better for me to actually read it and not be in the dark, you know. Critics is one thing, but … there is one thing, there’s this whole thing with youtube comments, those can get pretty ridiculous, there are times where I have to stop looking at those and move on, because people get really absurd with what the things that they post about people.

There is a sense where you read it, you listen to it, you let it go. But if it’s constructive criticism, then that’s healthy. But if it’s just someone being a punk about stuff, and being rude and racist and whatever, as abusive comments can be, you know, it kind of like there’s no need for that. I’ve learned a lot from people who have given me criticism, tried to take that and use it.

I guess you know what my next question’s going to be about.

I don’t. What’s that?

Well, we’ve talked about critics and you tube, and I have to ask you about … Helen Mackenzie.

Oooh, of course. How could I even question. What would you like to know about Helen Mackenzie?

Where did she come from?

She came from her hair. She came from that wig. The story was, this was Christmas Eve, 2006 or 2007 and my high school friend had this ridiculous wig, that used be a nice, clean kind of purple bob-cut wig. She left it in her car in the sun, and found it months later, and that’s exactly what it looked like. It was all shriveled and matted and it turned blue, it looked just like how you see it in the videos. I just put it when we had a Christmas Eve dinner with family and friends, my friend had a video camera and this is something that we do all the time, somebody has a camera and we just improvise and make up little … and be silly. So that’s what happened, it was not a planned thing.

This is a another side of me, if I wasn’t a singer, I’ve always loved to act. I’ve never really taken any kind of formal training, but I do love it and I do love to dress up. And I love to improvise. Making people laugh and laughing at other things in life, that is greatest feeling in the world. Thinking of the whole “Lost and found” thing, when you laugh, even if you are in a really dark place, in that very specific moment, you forget. You’re able to physically forget and get caught up in something in a good way that makes you laugh. And then you might go back to your dark place, but if someone can make you laugh in a split second, you’ve found some light. I love the idea that laughing and crying are both these opposite, both light and dark, lost and found kind of reactions, but they really come from the same place.

That’s kind of the deeper thing, about this lost and found opposition, it really is complete opposite, but the core is the same, so they’re opposite, but they’re very similar, you kind of need one to balance out the other.