INCOGNITO: TRUE BLUEY
With the arrival this month of the cinematically-titled 'Tales From The Beach', London-based jazz/funk/soul collective Incognito are impressively celebrating their thirteenth album release.
Arguably the most multi-cultural band in Britain (current and past members hailing from a remarkable list of 32 different countries!), Incognito was initially formed back in 1979 by Mauritius-born Jean-Paul Maunick, known to all since childhood as 'Bluey'. The son of Edouard Maunick - a distinguished African poet and writer - Bluey first moved to London in 1969 at the age of nine. By the mid-Seventies, his fascination with watching visiting US bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, Weather Report and Kool & The Gang soon led to him hanging around with key players in the UK`s then-emerging jazz-funk scene - including groups like Gonzalez, Hi-Tension and Average White Band - before going on to form his own aforementioned combo.
With Incognito`s debut album 'Jazz Funk' (released through British independent Ensign Records in 1981) immediately establishing them at the forefront of London`s then-thriving black music underground, the band however did not reach their commercial peak until signing with Phonogram`s hip Talkin` Loud label in 1990. When a string of British hit singles (like 1991`s 'Always There' and 1992`s 'Don`t You Worry `Bout A Thing') would eventually lead to early-to-mid Nineties Incognito albums like 'Positivity' and '100 Degrees And Rising' prestigiously cracking the US jazz chart and in turn selling over 750,000 copies in America alone. With Bluey going on to collaborate (frequently as producer) with such bona fide black music legends as Stevie Wonder, George Benson and Philip Bailey, Incognito have remained a staple of the live international music arena ever since; performing at all the major festivals from Montreux and Monterey to North Sea Jazz.
With their last five albums all being released through UK soul indie Dome, Incognito`s latest set has been lovingly described as “the latest chapter in the three-decade-old story of an island kid whose soul, inspired by music, continues to lift spirits and bring joy to audiences in literally all corners of the world”. lts title 'Tales From The Beach' harking back to Bluey`s childhood in Mauritius, when he`d listen to local musicians putting folkloric stories to a beat as the people danced on the beaches.
“Well, you know, I first came to the UK at around nine years old. And, prior to that, I`d already discovered music at the age of five in Mauritius, where basically the only place you could readily listen to music was on the beaches”, begins Bluey from the fourteenth floor of the West End`s St. George`s hotel: “While we had one little radio at home, it was only turned on maybe once or twice a week for the whole family to sit around and listen to particular programmes. Whereas on the beach there were always entertainers playing and people having beach parties. And the central thing was always to play music around a camp-fire at night. So I`d sneak out the house when I was supposed to be in bed, and just listen to this stuff being played. Which is when I first really fell in love with music and decided I wanted to play music for the rest of my life!
“So this album basically is an extension of that”, he continues: “Because I actually decided to go to various coasts in Italy and in Indonesia to get my inspiration and get my songwriting together for it. And, once I was around beaches and water, I found that a lotta the emotion that I`d felt about music as a kid in Mauritius kept on coming back! With the sun, sand and sea around me I felt really joyous; I felt uplifted; I was feeling healthy; I was feeling good; I was in a celebratory mood... And the album basically just flowed from that! I wasn`t struggling to find a way to write what was in my heart. It all came outta me in a much easier way than normal. So the title 'Tales From The Beach' in itself reflects the inspiration behind my work.”
With the album being recorded in Italy, Germany, Indonesia and London, Bluey openly confirms how the different locations inspired the music: “With me being a metaphoric-type writer, what surrounds me always proves very helpful to my songwriting”, explains the ever-affable Incognito founder/writer/producer/guitarist: “I can definitely relate to everything around me - whether it be visual, taste-related... you know, all the senses. A good example came about when we were based in Tuscany. We were living at the top of a mountain, with the sea at the BOTTOM of the mountain. So we`d walk down the hill to the beaches in the morning, play in the water, and then walk back up the hill later in the day. And what I realised was that - though to actually get to the house, we`d had to drive up a winding road - once you were at the top and you looked down, you could see the ocean and the beach, but you couldn`t see the road that had TAKEN you there! And to me that obviously became like a metaphor in life for the state of a relationship. So, in the song 'I Remember A Time', the lines “I wonder how the winding roads that brought me here: Have simply gone and disappeared” reflect the feeling of `everything that we`ve been through still hasn`t been able to sustain where we are today`. You know, it became part of the lyric. And I think that right there reflects how the songs on the album were constantly influenced by our surroundings at the time.”
Which in turn even led to unorthodox ways of initially documenting the songs: “Yeah, while we were in Italy, one day I decided to take a weekend away from writing. So, with Switzerland not being too far way, I decided to take my family there”, recalls all-round good-guy Bluey: “But then, once we got to Switzerland, we went for a boat-ride on the lake and immediately those creative juices started to flow again! So straightaway I had to stop by the side of the lake - and I actually wrote the song `It May Rain Sometime` right there on the spot! And, because I needed somewhere to record it, we had to search for a phone - and I ended up actually singing the demo to my answer-machine in London! You know, the environments we were in genuinely did put me in a writing mood. I don`t think I`d been through such a creative phase since, I`d say, maybe `91/`92. And I do genuinely feel that the songs on this album represent some of my best writing ever.”
With the album`s driving rhythms and soulful vocals punctuated by the band`s unmistakeable trademark horns, Bluey`s upbeat mood while writing the songs seems naturally reflected in the uplifting musical vibe of tracks like the punchy four-to-the-floor opener 'Step Aside' and the joyously galloping 'Love, Joy, Under-standing': “Oh, I definitely think that, when your spirit is `up`, you do tend to nurture the joyfulness of it and you wanna CELEBRATE that”, concurs Bluey: “Plus, while the last Incognito album (2006`s `Bees + Things + Flowers`) was mainly acoustic, downtempo and recorded live, 'Tales From The Beach' represents me getting back into the studio as a PRODUCER! You know, this wasn`t a question of just bringing all the band together in a circle, plugging in the guitars and pressing `play`. This was WORK! We had to really CRAFT these songs and do a lot of rehearsing. And for me it was a real pleasure to concentrate more on the production side this time - stripping away things, looking at the layers, adding to the layers... This album really was all about me being in my element in the studio. And, while I did involve co-writers and co-producers, overall I was very much on top of it all! I knew what I wanted it to SOUND like; I knew what I wanted it to FEEL like; I knew what I wanted it to LOOK like; I chose the artwork; I chose the photographer… You know, there was no go-between, and there was no record company telling me who I could or couldn`t work with.”
While Bluey claims to have incredibly used more than 1000 different musicians and vocalists during Incognito`s near-30-year career (line-ups over the years varying from eight-piece to 14-piece and more), many of the key members featured on the current album have been in place for several years. These include drummer Richard Bailey, bassist Francis Hylton, and keyboardist Matt Cooper; in addition to singers Tony Momrelle, Joy Rose and Imaani. Who each feature heavily on `Tales From The Beach` alongside the returning (for four songs only) one-time Stevie Wonder backing vocalist Maysa Leak, who predominantly fronted Incognito during their early-to-mid-Nineties international heyday. All of whom (with the exception of the guesting Maysa) basically represent Incognito`s touring line-up for the last two years. Which, since January 2007, has seen them perform in over 25 countries - including Europe, the US and Japan; as well as less obvious destinations like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and - significantly for the first time - The Philippines.
“I`m a person who always needs to be fed that something absolutely new and vibrant in my life. So to me travelling the world playing live music and seeing new things is probably the biggest thrill of all”, enthuses Bluey: “And it didn`t get any bigger than going to Manila for the first time! You know, over nearly 30 years of Incognito, I`ve had so many letters and e-mails from people in The Philippines saying `PLEASE, you MUST COME!`. But, though it seems our music is almost REVERED over there, we`d never actually BEEN. So I didn`t know what to expect. And what I got was a burst of energy to the point of being UNBELIEVABLE! It`s just so refreshing to see young people feeling so passionate about your music, hanging on to your every word, and even doing harmonies in the audience that you never even WROTE! You know, to go to The Philippines and get that much love and affection was THRILLING! Plus it was also interesting doing some of the summer festivals across Asia as a whole. You know, some nights Incognito would be playing on a bill with the founder-members of Funkadelic/Parliament, The Roots, John Legend... And being part of all that again was AMAZING! Because you could feel that this music - which had originally come out of Africa and then travelled the world to become jazz, soul, funk, whatever - really now belongs to EVERYBODY! I mean, playing onstage you might feel important being on a bill like that. But then you look out over 20/30/ 40,000 people in a field all digging this music - and you realise that it`s become something bigger than YOURSELF! And to be a part of all that history, for want of a better word, was just a truly amazing feeling.”
While Bluey graciously tips his hat to obviously-Incognito-influenced, latest LP projects from both Reel People and Joey Negro (“I can hear that they`re not only looking for Incognito MUSICIANS, but also for an Incognito type of SOUND. And that PLEASES me, because I`m all for a movement”), his main interests understandably lie with the future of his own band: “I already have a lot of collaborations going on with various Indonesian and Japanese artists at the moment. So I`ve been thinking about the next Incognito album becoming a possible collaborations project, featuring people like D`Angelo, Ursula Rucker, Jill Scott... I`d basically like to put them all on one record but with an Incognito sound. Which I think would be interesting for the fans, as well as maybe opening up some doors for ME. You know, it didn`t do Santana any harm! Then of course, with our 30th anniversary coming up, this next year is gonna be pure tours - America, Europe, Brazil... As well as countries like China and the one place we haven`t been to yet that keep calling for us, which is Chile. So yeah, we`re kinda busy right now - and I`m loving every minute of it!”
The album 'Tales From The Beach' is out now. The digital single 'I`ve Been Waiting' follows June 16, both through Dome
Words PETE LEWIS