Kuumba-Toudie Heath – Baraka (1969)
Biological son of saxophonist Jimmy Heath, raised by James Forman, the accompanist of Dizzy Gillespie, 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 by Herbie Hancock or Don Cherry, both of whom performed there.
But, really, Kawaida is Mtume’s album: he wrote all but one of the tracks, and it was his interest in Maulana Karenga’s Pan-Africanist theories that informed the project. It ranges from intense free jazz to calmer modal releases: Baraka fits into this last category, a perfect introduction.
Miles Davis – Mtume (1974)
Mtume first rose to prominence as a percussionist in Miles Davis ‘early’ 70s band, which still sparked controversy decades later – for years it seemed no Davis documentary was. complete without someone, usually the critic Stanley Crouch, decrying them as crowded noise or cowardly surrender to commercial forces. It must be said, there are obviously more cowardly capitulations to the commercial forces than the music of the incredible Get Up With It of 1974, an album by Mtume is all over. Hear his congas float, as one writer put it, “like bats” during the mind-blowing, subdued and inspiring Duke Ellington tribute to He Loved Him Madly – but let’s go with the track named in his honor, that Mtume feeds.
Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes – Sais (Egypt) (1974)
Saxophonist Sonny Rollins recorded it first, Mtume’s own 1977 version was 22 minutes long, but the best version of his Afrocentric jazz tribute to ancient Egypt might be from Lonnie Liston Smith’s Cosmic Echoes album. : a blissful eight-minute drift, fed by an insistent bass line, embellished with a soaring synth and electric piano.
Mtume – Umoja (1977)
As his career as an R&B songwriter and producer took off, Mtume released one last burst of spiritual and Afrocentric jazz, the album Rebirth Cycle. Never legally reissued and unavailable on streaming services, a bootleg or YouTube are your only real options, but it’s worth checking out: the long version of Sais is awesome, and the collection of shorter, influenced tracks. ‘soul on the second side – including Umoja – are fabulous, with the vocals of Jean Carne from Don’t Let It Go to Your Head.
Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway – Together Again (1980)
Recruited for Roberta Flack’s band, Mtume made it a point to rekindle the singer’s relationship with his struggling duo 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 a 1972 Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway follow-up album, but Hathaway’s erratic behavior caused Mtume to temporarily drop sessions: hours after recording her vocals on Back Together Again, Hathaway returned to his hotel and committed suicide. 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 joy.
Stephanie Mills – Never Known Love Like This Before (1980)
As the ’70s turned into the’ 80s, Mtume and her writing / production partner Reggie Lucas – another Miles Davis alumnus – turned singer Stephanie Mills into a Broadway star, who spent five years in the cast of The Wiz, a regular on the R&B charts. The four albums they’ve made with her are packed with highlights – What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin ‘, Starlight, Two Hearts – but the commercial peak has been Grammy-winning Never Knew Love Like This Before: A Pillow mellow, richly orchestrated in the middle disco tempo, inspired by the birth of Lucas’ first child. A few years ago it was used, with heartbreaking effect, in the second series of Pose.
Mtume – So you wanna be a star (1980)
The debut album from Mtume’s own R&B project was about funk chic and luscious ballads – check out the often-sampled Love Lock – but the band really hit their stride as disco gave way to the more electronic sound of boogie. The climax of Mtume’s second album, In Search of the Rainbow Seekers, So You Wanna Be a Star mixes opulent strings, muffled brass and a chic guitar with a sharp, sharp synth. It would be intriguing to know if Mtume and Lucas had someone in mind when they wrote the lyrics, which apart from a celebrity on their way to a fall (“your entourage looks pretty fishy”): whatever the subject, the results are both sophisticated and cheeky.
Phyllis Hyman – You Know How To Love Me (1981)
Prior to joining Mtume and Lucas, Phyllis Hyman had worked with a succession of fantastic writers and producers – Skip Scarborough, Philip Bailey of Earth Wind & Fire and, on his heartbreaking anthem Loving You Losing You, Thom Bell. But the sound of You Know How to Love Me from 1981 is the definition of what Mtume called his ‘sophisticatedunk’ style: dancefloor rhythms, ‘pretty melodies’, a hint of jazz always lurking somewhere in the mix. It’s a question of whether the title song or Under Your Spell is the best thing here, but if the first deserved a much bigger hit – which was pretty much the story of the underrated career of Hyman – he’s right nonetheless has become one of his signature songs.
Mtume – Juicy Fruit (1983)
Mtume didn’t care much for the burgeoning hip-hop scene by loudly demanding in the late ’80s that sampled artists be paid, but that didn’t seem to stop people from sampling him: at last count, Mtume’s biggest hit – a ballad that reduced its sound to little more than a drum machine, synth, guitar scatter, and dubby echo – has been borrowed over 100 times, by everyone from Stetsasonic to Jennifer Lopez, but the most famous on the 1994 Notorious BIG crushes Juicy. Wrigley attempted to sue the track, before Mtume explained to their lawyers that the song had nothing to do with chewing gum – “it’s about oral sex” – an experience he described more late as “one of the highlights of my life”.
Mtume – New Face Deli (1986)
Mtume’s Theater of the Mind album was actually James Mtume’s farewell to the music industry. Almost entirely electronic, it sounded perfect for the moment, but the cynical lyrics, no doubt the work of a man who had grown up in the politically militant Black Power era, suggested someone who had had enough of the pop music scene. ’80s – MTV is coming for a bashing – and in fact the Reagan 80s themselves. New Face Deli finds him angry with plastic surgery as a “cop out,” perhaps with an eye on the biggest black star of the day – “who said a big nose was ugly?” Who Said There Is A Thin Nose? He turned to the theater the following year: the loss of R&B.