Mtume – ‘Prime Time: The Epic Anthology’ reviewed

 Miles away from Miles, the pioneering funk/R&B band Mtume.

There aren’t many former Miles Davis band members who travelled so far from the wild experimentalism of his early 70’s sound than percussionist James Mtume (who even had a Miles track named after him) and guitarist Reggie Lucas.  After Miles retired from music, at the beginning of 1976, they decided to find work together as songwriters and producers, hoping they could also produce something for themselves as well.  They became part of Roberta Flack’s touring band during which time they composed the song The Closer I Get To You for her, providing Flack with one of her biggest hits in years.

As a result of this success the pair were quickly signed to Epic Records although they hadn’t got a band or even a group name at the time.  Whilst working on the Roberta Flack album they co-opted a number of that band into their own and recruited a singer, Tawatha Agee, who had been providing vocals for demos of their songs.  The anthology takes a generous seven tracks from the album, Kiss This World Goodbye, which is a mixture of soul ballads and P-Funk soul (more reminiscent of Cameo than George Clinton).  Highlights are their very faithful reading of their Roberta Flack hit and the rock/funk flavoured Funky Constellation.  It’s a rather disjointed mix of styles but an interesting listen.  The final track from here is probably the most informative; Love Lock is not only the strongest track but a clear indication of where the Mtume/Lucas songwriting partnership was headed.

In the two years before their second album, In Search Of The Rainbow, the pair found themselves a distinctive production and writing sound which elevated them to the status of in demand hitmakers.  Having written massive hits for Stephanie Mills and another for Roberta Flack, along with some underground classics for Phylis Hyman, the album is full of that trademark sound.  You Wanna Be A Star is the finest example and proves they didn’t give away every great song they’d written whilst Give It On Up (If You Want To) and Can’t Wait For Love are almost its equal.  The seven tracks included show a much more cohesive sound and the other tracks again follow the pattern of mixing funky grooves and soul ballads.

In the intermittent years before the third album, Mtume and Lucas parted company leaving the percussionist with the band duties.  Utilising the advances in electronic and studio technology the third album sounds like a different band.  Green Light is very much a funk track of its time but the revelation was the album’s title track, Juicy Fruit.  Its sultry vocal and skittering rhythm track mark it as something of transition from soul to what we nowadays call modern R’n’B.  The anthology includes both parts included on the album but also a vocal remix.  It might seem like overkill but it’s not just the most recognisable track included but a hugely influential and timeless classic.  It would become the group’s trademark sound across their final two albums.

If anything, the material on the follow up album You, Me, And He is even better.  The title track is included here with two subsequent parts which were only available on the twelve inch single.  The sleeve notes describe this as a mini symphony and it’s good to be able to hear each part in sequence.  The most interesting is the final part, It’s Non Functional, which breaks the track down into component parts and highlights how modern the piece sounds.  The other cuts included are equally as strong.  C.O.D. (I’ll Deliver) which is eerily reminiscent of their biggest hit and Prime Time, a classic mid-80’s soul/funk track which deserves to be remembered far more than its modest legacy.   The final Mtume album follows the same path and the three tracks included follow the formula and are all pleasant listens although one feels this is somewhat treading water.

The final three tracks are highlights from the band’s secret weapon, Tawatha Agee’s 1987 solo album.  These highlight what is glaringly apparent throughout the entire anthology; the fantastic vocal quality of Agee.  Her voice is rich and light throughout and she deserves to be far better known than as the session vocalist to the stars that she’s become in the subsequent years.  Her smooth yet rich delivery is a constant highlight throughout.

The compilers have wisely limited the number of tracks from what was “the hit album” and concentrated on the plethora of other great tracks on the lesser known albums.  It demonstrates both the high quality songwriting and production skills but how influential and criminally underrated both the band and the man Mtume are.  Oh, just in case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced Em-too-may.

❉ Mtume – ‘Prime Time: The Epic Anthology’ is out now from SoulMusic/Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99.

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