The title of this compilation from Strut gives the listener a pretty good idea of what to expect from the record. The story of Black Fire Records is told with a finely curated selection of 10 tracks spanning 1975-1993. That may be almost 20 years but the offering has a striking continuity and the album flows beautifully from start to finish without incongruous juxtapositions or jarring inclusions.
The album comes with a comprehensive 25-page booklet detailing the history of the label. One crucial fact is that founders DJ and producer Jimmy Gray and saxophonist James ‘Plunky’ Branch ran into money troubles early on at the label and unfortunately many recordings had to be canned before release. Although some were eventually issued on CD in the 90s this is their vinyl debut.
‘Soul Love Now’ the title track is from Oneness Of Juju, sax player James ‘Plunky’ Branch’s band, blending soul jazz with the rhythms of Africa. ‘Africa is our Mother’ vocalist Eka-Ete Jackie Lewis harmonises with impressive power as Afro-beats and the vibes of Lon Moshe drive the song forward. As a cornerstone of Black Fire’s output, various incarnations of the band get three tunes on the album.
An earlier example when they were simply known as Juju is ‘Nia (Poem: Complete the Circle)’ a song documenting personal and spiritual growth, ‘to find peace you must be it’ gives a flavour of the vocal. The circle is literally completed by Branch’s impressive circular breath as he blows his instrument for the concluding duration.
For completists also included is a 1975 live version of ‘African Rhythms’ which is not released elsewhere. Branch says of the song ‘we created this piece to be spiritual, informative, something you could get off to.’ This could also be a mission statement for Black Fire as a whole, music to move the listener both spiritually and politically but also crucially something you can dance to.
Wayne Davis’ soul groove ‘Look At The People’ retains its political relevance and bite as a commentary on life in contemporary America, ‘Sippin’ Coca-Cola, eating apple pie just like everything’s alright’ is delivered in his gutsy vocal.
The 1993 recording ‘Third House’ by Southern Energy Ensemble has all the ingredients that give the previously uninitiated listener (like myself) a sense that this is the distinctive Black Fire sound: Afro percussion, in this case, congas, tight horns, jazz elements fused with a soulful sensibility and transcendent qualities which aspire to take the listener to a higher plane.
Ghanaian percussionist Okyenema Asante’s ‘Follow Me’ sees the band’s vocalist incrementally raise the pitch of her voice until she’s competing with the sax to shatter any glassware in the vicinity. This is combined with squelching keyboards and treated sax alongside Asante’s beats to give the piece a mesmerising hypnotic quality.
The final selection, ‘People’ by Experience Unlimited is taken from their 1977 debut album Free Yourself. It’s a soulful duet brimming with vocal harmonies. The band went on to release many more albums and saw a revival of their fortunes in the 90s thanks in part to some high profile sampling of their work from this era.
The Black Fire Records Story’s continuity is achieved by focusing on musical flow rather than chronological sequence which gives the listener an immediate feel for the elements that make Black Fire as relevant in 2020 as it was back in 1975.