Third Street : 1977
Yebo: Mtume, piano, wooden flute, vocals; Bayete, elec. piano; Pete Cosey, guitar; Michael Henderson, bass; Al Foster, drums; Tawatha Agee, vocals.
Umoja: Mtume, arr.; Jimmy Heath, Azar Lawrence, John Stubblefield, reeds; Stanley Cowell, piano; Reggie Lucas, guitar; Leroy Jenkins, violin; Buster Williams and Cecil McBee, bass; Diedre Johnson, cello; Billy Hart and Andrei Strobert, drums; Onika, Carol Robinson, Tawatha Agee, Shirley Jenkins, vocals.
James Mtume has had an unusual career arc, one that mirrors a generation’s change in pop taste. The son of Jimmy Heath, nephew of Percy and Tootie, Mtume had jazz bred in the bone. The early seventies found him replacing Airto in the percussion chair for Miles’ legendary bands of the period, ending up with a song named in his honor (on Get Up with It), a significant milestone shared by John McLaughlin, Billy Preston, and Willie Nelson.
In February 1974, while Miles and company were holding forth at Keystone Korner in San Francisco, Mtume cut “Yebo” with the core band, later overdubbing vocals and other elements. Purists may bristle at the additions, but this is what the Davis band would have sounded like had Miles really wanted to make the charts.
To paraphrase George Clinton, who says a free jazz site can’t post funk? Given the avant credentials of the participants, you may be surprised that “Yebo” sounds like some crate-digging funk gem you’d score off Soul Sides. This sprightly, chugging bit of consciouness-raising also offers another welcome chance to hear Pete Cosey, along with enough sonic weirdness to keep things interesting. There would appear to be some uncredited reed work on this track, but the otherwise informative liner notes aren’t much help.
The album as a whole is heavily influenced by African culture, and this influence is heard most clearly on the sweeping “Umoja,” which keeps a post-Coltrane roil brewing under nasalized chanting and ululations. Expansive without really moving very far, it reads as an utterly committed attempt to reach across ocean and time to connect with African forebears and forms.
Following this album, Mtume would lend his name to a funk group that scored a hit later in the decade with “Juicy Fruit,” notably sampled by Notorious B.I.G. Mtume and Reggie Lucas became successful pop songwriters and producers, penning the Grammy-winning “Never Knew Love Like this Before” for Stephanie Mills. Lucas for his part went on to write and produce “Borderline” for a certain pop starlet. Mtume now co-hosts a call-in show on Sundays on New York’s KISS-97.
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FUNK US: We’re curious – what are some of your favorite instances of avant jazz players participating in killer funky tracks? And have there been more strange careers like Mtume where out players crossed into the mainstream commercial market?