James Mtume is best known for his smash 1983 hit ‘Juicy Fruit’, but there is a good deal more to his impressive portfolio and this excellent two CD set fills in the gaps in the period 1978-1980, immediately prior to major commercial success. Mtume (Swahili word for ‘messenger’) is in fact the son of legendary jazz tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath and fellow musicians Albert and Percy of MJQ fame) count among his uncles. A career as a jazz percussionist beckoned for Mtume in the early 1970s and he recorded as a sideman for no less than McCoy Tyner on ‘Song for my lady’ (1973) and ‘Sama Layuca’ (1974). A first sign of future success came with forming of a long musical partnership in 1972 with Reggie Lucas. The pair would co-write ‘The closer I get to you’ which was in unfinished form when Roberta Flack first heard it and transformed the song into major hit with the vocals of Donnie Hathaway being added in Chicago. A 1977 album on the independent jazz label Strata East, Mtume ‘Rebirth Cycle’, was an indication that Mtume was never likely to take a conventional route, but a year later his first soul/funk offering, ‘Kiss this world goodbye’ came out on Epic records, a result of the successful songwriting effort with Roberta Flack. In truth it is a mixed affair, containing looser elements, some of which work and some of which do not. A first attempt at funk revealed an interest in Parliament and Bootsy Collins, but numbers such as ‘Just Funnin’ sound a little dated while the rock-tinged guitar on ‘Day of the Reggin’ is simply no longer relevant. That said, a key part of the Mtume jigsaw was about to be showcased on the quality slow jam ‘Closer to the end’ with vocals by a then relatively unknown Tawatha Agee. She would become an integral part of the Mtume sound and another fine ballad, ‘This is your world’, featured Agee and Mtume on joint lead vocals. A reprise of ‘The closer I get to you’ is an interesting alternative take, but not a patch on the Flack/Hathaway classic. Wordless jazz-funk abounds on ‘Love Lock’ with wah-wah guitar and various sound effects. If this first album on a mainstream label was a testing ground, then Mtume had learnt some important lessons by album number two. The group was now in place that would conquer the soul world three years later, but what was now required was a hit single. A riposte came in the driving ‘Give it on up (if you want to)’ which had a genuine sense of urgency and a driving beat and a late disco classic for sure. Mtume and Lucas had in fact tested the commercial ground even before this second album by producing both Stephanie Mills and Phyllis Hyman, the latter with a modern soul boy anthem, ‘You know how to love me’. This experience was redirected into the group effort and a second single was released, ‘Do you wanna be a star’ and now sounds a terrific uptempo synth-infused groove that has weathered the storms of time remarkably well.
Once again quality ballads emerged and probably the pick of the bunch was ‘We’re gonna make it this time’ with Agee’s lead being supported by some glorious female background vocals. The title track with keyboardist Hubert Eaves influential on synth bass, a sound he would perfect with D-Train, found Mtume on new commercial territory and one that would ultimately lead to ‘Juicy Fruit’. Excellent inner sleeves notes from soul aficionado David Nathan, who is a personal friend of James Mtume, shed useful biographical light on his career. A very worthy re-issue and hard to find in their original vinyl formats.