The Master of Juju

Richmond jazz legend Plunky Branch readies for new release.

As an artist not afraid of change and developing new musical formulas, James “Plunky” Branch has been creating challenging yet always soulful jazz for more than four decades. Whether with his Afro-jazz ensemble Oneness of Juju or its more mainstreamed carnation Plunky & Oneness, the Richmonder continues to take the Virginia sound into the world, most recently in January, when he once again performed in London. We chatted with Branch ahead of his show at Richmond’s Capital Ale House this Saturday, where he will celebrate the release of a new four-song EP that serves as a teaser for his next full-length album Love Makes Us Better.  

Tell us about the record you’re currently working on.

It’ll be 12-14 new songs; some jazzy, some funky, some serious, some whimsical, but all very personal and sincere. With this new album are are creating a playlist that zigzags across smooth jazz, Afro-funk and soul. That’s what Plunky & Oneness is all about; navigating the inner workings of Afro-American music and charting new grooves.

You have released more than 20 albums since the early 1970s. How do you stay inspired?

I stay inspired by trying to stay relevant and trying to keep working. Performing with younger musicians, including my son, J. Fire Branch, and working with them to try to forge new pathways and new fusions is enough for me to continue to search for new pools of creativity. Also, people and companies keep finding new uses for some of my older recordings and that inspires me to keep on creating new things that people might be able to use in the future. It is music and the legacy I will leave my family.

You spent some years in San Francisco and up in New York City, but you eventually returned to Richmond. What was the local music scene like back in those days and what made you come back?

I came back to Richmond after living in San Francisco and in New York to bring back some of what I had learned to my hometown. The music scene then was very much a singular R&B soul music scene. I tried to introduce African Jazz and African principles to this community.  And I have tried to make are music relevant outside the confines of this metro area.

As one of a handful of Richmond jazz artists who tours internationally on a consistent basis, how do you define the Richmond sound, if there is such thing?

I do think Richmond has a sound. It is R&B, Go-Go, hip hop, live music, for dancing primarily. Actually when I went to college I started a band in New York called the Soul Syndicate which was simply a rhythm and blues band like I had experienced in Richmond. When I go abroad I am playing that R&B sound mixed with Afro-funk. So I believe Richmond has definitely influenced my music and I may have had some impact on the local scene also.

Some say that in jazz, everything that can be said has been said. Where is jazz headed from here?

Jazz music continues to evolve. Even if we are confined to older styles and subgenres, there are still innumerable combinations of notes and rhythms to keep that form alive and evolving. But beyond that music keeps finding new ways to be distributed and discovered, particularly given the international aspect and reach of the internet. These days I think that the new combinations of jazz fused with hip hop, poetry, futurism and production techniques will keep things fresh and new. It may not be jazz per se, but it will be the sounds of surprise, innovation and involvement.  And that freshness and newness is enough to inspire music lovers.

Click here to read our feature on the full history of jazz in Virginia: meet the artists, read profiles and watch performance videos and interviews.

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