Review: Plunky and Oneness – “Love is Everywhere”

Plunky and Oneness – “Love is Everywhere” (N.A.M.E. Brand Records)

For over half a century, James “Plunky” Branch has been defying easy categorization. In his early days, he was an avant-garde tinged innovator in Afrocentric music. Over the years since, his music has appeared everywhere from television’s “The Cosby Show” to video game “Grand Theft Auto.” A Richmond institution for decades, and one of the founders of the Richmond Jazz Society, he was one of the bright lights of the COVID lockdown, radiating positivity with months of nightly concerts from the porch of his Byrd Park home. On special occasions, he played with the core Oneness band on this album, including Carl Lester El on guitar, Fabian Lance on keys, P. Muzi Branch on bass, J. Fire Branch on drums, and vocalist Charlayne Green and Shondra Davis.

While he describes his half-century career as eclectic, the theme here is universal. “I wanted to hone down on a specific subject, and that subject is love,” Branch says. “I borrowed the title from a [1974] Pharoah Sanders song. My song is different, but it shares Pharaoh’s cosmic approach.” The music slides from R&B to smooth jazz, to straight-up soul.

Sometimes Branch sings lead, but more often hangs back and lets his soprano and alto saxophones do the talking. All of the songs are positive with the exception of the rueful “If Only,” an island of skepticism in a lyrical sea awash in celebration of the transformative power of love. “I’ll Be There” demonstrates the mutability of the theme, initially appears as a reggae song, then closing out the album in three vastly different remixes, a dance house mix, then trap drill, and finally as a hip-hop/rap foundation.

After a half-century of exploring everywhere, his biography ranges from 1960s sit-ins to West Coast jazz experimentation and getting into a cutting contest with Fela Kuti in a Nigerian nightspot, Branch is starting to bring it all together. “This album is only eight different songs with some remixes,” he says, “But later this year I am going to make available 30 love songs from the past 25 years. And then I am going to for a compilation of 22 Afrobeat songs, and then 50 jazz and R&B. I have over 30 [genre-defying] albums out, but by focusing on subject matter I hope it is easier for people to digest. People think of me as a saxophone player, but sometimes the words are most important. Love can come to us in any way and meet us where we are.”

For those willing to listen, the same can be said about music.

Plunky and Oneness performs at the Perkinson Center for the Arts and Education on Friday, Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m. You can purchase tickets here.

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