Bluey (Incognito): True colours
With the arrival this month of the intriguingly-titled ‘Transatlantic R.P.M.’, London-based jazz/funk/soul collective Incognito are impressively celebrating both their fourteenth studio album release and thirtieth anniversary.
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 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 Gonzales, 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. Meanwhile, with Bluey going on to collaborate (frequently as a 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 six albums all being released through UK soul indie Dome, Incognito’s latest set prestigiously boasts an impressive list of special guests - ranging from US soul legends Chaka Khan, Leon Ware and Earth, Wind & Fire guitarist Al McKay; to Italy’s Mario Biondi; American spoken word songstress Ursula Rucker; plus Christian Urich of soulful New York dance pioneers Tortured Soul.
“The title ‘Transatlantic R.P.M.’ basically reflects that this is the album that connects the music of Incognito with my record collection. So in that way it’s kind of like the full circle”, begins Bluey, relaxing over morning coffee on the fourteenth floor of the West End’s St. George’s hotel: “It’s about actually making that physical journey to America to collaborate with those artists from my record collection who came over FROM there, brought their music to the UK, and really influenced what we did back in the day. And the importance of these particular people that I’ve worked with is that they’re all artists who don’t actually see the way that we work as just a revamp of the old skool. They see that what we do, and what we retain from the past, is actually a statement of where we are in our current state. That it’s not a case of just rehashing the old, but of doing something that we think of as fresh and new.”
“Plus, people like Chaka Khan, Leon Ware and Al McKay are artists of the same MIND as us, in that they don’t play this type of music just because they only know how to play their old songs”, he continues: “So, when we all work together, we’re constantly trying to still get maximum CREATIVITY out of this. Also Chaka, for example, is one of those singers that doesn’t stick to traditions because that’s where she made her mark, but because it WORKS! You know, there’s a certain flow in the studio working with her that you don’t get working with modern producers. And that flow is what makes her who SHE is, and what makes Incognito who WE are. Because there is an attention to detail there. It’s like ‘Well, if we need to recut this we’ll recut this’ or ‘If we need to add strings we’ll add strings’… You know, while we sometimes have to struggle to get the budget, there’s still nothing that’s gonna stop us from achieving what we feel the record needs.”
With the album being recorded in London, Rome and Los Angeles, Bluey openly reveals how the recording process itself strongly influenced the sound this time: “Well, it’s the first time in decades that we worked in the old kind of way that Motown almost did in terms of their recordings. You know, I said to the band ‘Since 1979 - when we did ‘Parisian Girl’ and the ‘Jazz Funk’ album - I’ve never worked in a way where we turn up in the studio with nothing in our minds, sit in a circle, play for days on end, and then just pick the gems from that’... So this time we went back to that old way of working. Which is why on a lotta the songs you do find a lot people named as writers. You know, the drummer, the keyboard-player, the bass-player and myself may have all been part of the writing process - because we were all just sat in a studio kind of churning this thing which came out of a jam session. And there is a type of sound that COMES from that, which you don’t get from just turning up and saying ‘Well, these are the chords, this is the beat - this is how it GOES!’!”
Interestingly, since Incognito’s last album for Mercury Records’ Talkin’ Loud imprint (2001’s ‘Life, Stranger Than Fiction’), the band has consistently released through the independent route. A situation Bluey remains happy with to this day: “Well, the most important thing about doing it the independent way to me is that I own my own STUFF!”, he asserts: “You know, while I am releasing it on the independent labels and I am licensing it, it still belongs to ME! Whereas with my old major label stuff, when I tried to get some material for use in a compilation recently, for two months I called Universal - who are looking after the Talkin’ Loud catalogue - and to this day I still haven’t had a REPLY! I don’t even know who to speak to; I don’t have a name; they don’t call me back… So, in a way, that’s one thing I’ll never want to repeat AGAIN! I don’t want my stuff to be in a vault somewhere that I can’t even REACH!”
“Plus, in addition to the independents working for me because it means I own my own material, another reason I like to work with small companies is because I feel we’re paying individual attention to each OTHER”, he adds: “You know, they need ME and I need THEM! Unlike a big company who DOESN’T really need you but you still need THEM! So with the independents there’s not this imbalance that exists with the majors. Also, the independent way of thinking is actually very similar to the way that I approach my MUSIC.”
Incognito perform at Ronnie Scotts, London on August 19, 20 and 21
Incognito’s album ‘Transatlantic R.P.M.’ is released July 26 through Dome
Pete Lewis continues this special interview with Bluey in the special Vintage edition of Blues & Soul Magazine coming this August 16th... Reserve your copy online now.
Words PETE LEWIS