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Issue 1084

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Feature

Incognito: Rebirth of the cool

Jean-Paul âBlueyâ Maunick @bluesandsoul.com
Jean-Paul âBlueyâ Maunick @bluesandsoul.com Incognito 2012 @bluesandsoul.com

With the arrival this month of the intriguingly-titled "Surreal," London-based jazz/funk/soul collective Incognito are impressively celebrating their 33rd anniversary with their 15th studio 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 âBlueyâ. The son of Edouard Maunick - a distinguished African poet and writer - Bluey first moved to London in 1969 at the age of 12. 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 UKâs 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 Incognitoâs debut album "Jazz Funk" (released through British independent Ensign Records in 1981) immediately establishing them at the forefront of Londonâs then-thriving black music underground, the band however did not reach their commercial peak until signing with Phonogramâs hip Talkinâ Loud label in 1990. When a string of British hit singles (like 1991âs "Always There" and 1992âs "Donât You Worry âBout 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 seven albums all being released through UK soul indie Dome, Incognitoâs latest set for the label now boasts a new-look vocal line-up which welcomes on board for the first time both London soul/jazz songstress Natalie Williams plus 26-year-old German-born singer/songwriter Mo Brandis alongside long-serving Incognito vocalists Vanessa Haynes and US-based, one-time Stevie Wonder backing-singer Maysa for a consistent 14-track set. Which - recorded entirely in London - has already been accurately described as âreflecting the energy of the bandâs live show, while adding a raw edge to their customary slick productionâ. All of which is evidenced on tracks ranging from the hooky, uplifting single "Goodbye To Yesterday" and funky, bass-driven opener "The Less You Know"; to the sparse, Seventies-style bossa nova of the dreamy "The Stars From Here" and Brazilian jazz-funk of the percussive instrumental closer "Thoughtful Fantasies."

All of which an ever-affable Bluey happily discusses with long-time industry acquaintance - and âBlues & Soulâ Assistant Editor - Pete Lewis over morning drinks on the 15th floor of the West Endâs St. Georgeâs Hotel.

Reasons for titling the new album "Surreal"

ââSurrealâ to me basically represents the way I was actually thinking as an INDIVIDUAL while making this record. In that this was the first time where it felt like I was actually outside of the project looking IN. You know, Iâd never before had that sensation of making a record where I felt almost like I was OVERLOOKING myself as the producer doing the work with the artists. And I think it was because of that that I decided to take a few chances this time, in terms of bringing in people whoâd never even listened to the kind of music that I MAKE. You know, young musicians from abroad - like an Italian drummer, a Portuguese percussionist - that are not really of that world and donât really have that HISTORY. Like if you turned round and said âLonnie Liston Smithâ, they wouldnât know who you were TALKING about - but yet they still have the ability to not only PLAY but also to DISCOVER and RESEARCH that music, and then put their own take ON it. You know, I basically needed some people whoâd actually go and do the homework, and then inject a new freshness into what we DO. And I do think that when you listen to this record you can definitely hear that freshness.â

The albumâs uniquely eyecatching cover-art - depicting Bluey in bright amber light, dressed as a spaceman underwater and surrounded by fishes (!)

âYeah, there I AM - underwater in the ASTRONAUT outfit! Like I finished this album on the day of my birthday - and with me being a Piscean who canât swim, itâs almost as surreal as it can GET! Like the art is almost Banksy in a way. In that itâs taking an image and then, because of the title being 'Surreal,' kind of putting it in another SPACE - which in this case means taking the spaceman OUT of space and putting him under the OCEAN!â

Bringing on board for the first time in-demand London soul/jazz songstress Natalie Williams plus 26-year-old German-born singer/songwriter Mo Brandis

âWell, when you kinda bring in people whose projects really are away from your own and who arenât just doing other things that are a lot like Incognito, it does definitely bring a totally fresh vibe to the project. Like Natalie Williams, with her own album being much more kinda folk-jazz-driven with acoustic bass and stuff, when she comes into Incognito it adds a different kind of SENSUALITY because of the world that she COMES from... Then with Mo youâve got someone whoâs not just an old skool soul singer in the tradition of the male singes Iâve had before, like Mark Anthoni, Chris Ballin, Tony (Momrelle)⦠Instead thereâs like that 10-to-20-year separation between HIM and what WEâRE doing. In that heâs from the kinda Michael Buble/Bruno Mars generation - where, if you mix the style of those two guys, what you get is basically the result of that whole Stevie (Wonder) and Donny Hathaway thing having been siphoned through the GENERATIONS. So, whereas with the guys Iâve previously had it was always more of a first-generation Stevie/Donny thing - you know, more of a direct influence - when you go forward a couple of generations to singers like Mo they THINK differently, they WRITE differently⦠Itâs like youâve got these kids whoâve actually grown up with a different way of LOOKING at things, and who PHRASE things differently when theyâre writing it down on paper as WELL. And so that in itself is very EXCITING.â

The new musical direction explored on "Surreal" being partly down to changes in the songwriting process this time round

âWell, I think you kind of hit it on the head when you came IN - before you even started the INTERVIEW - when you were saying âI can feel like a really raw, almost Brit-funk EDGE to itâ. Which Iâm HAPPY with, because I wanted this album to have an energy that would carry the SONGS! Because while for me songwriting is ALWAYS the primary thing, whatâs happened on this album is I am actually doing stuff I donât normally DO. In that Iâm co-writing with Mo Brandis on two tracks, Iâm co-writing with Natalie Williams on three tracks... You know, while I donât normally allow people to come into that very personal world of me songwriting - I feel a certain cringiness to it - in this case I did find that the energy of these young writers was the RIGHT kind of energy, and that they do seem to have a real understanding and genuine acceptance of my IDEAS... So yeah, the fact Iâd finally come to a place where I could allow that to happen was definitely a big STEP for me. And I think that the different sound on this record is at least partly DUE to that.â

How âSurrealâ also represents a progression for Bluey lyrically, with several of its songs this time round reflecting the intricacies of relationships on a deeper level

âWell again, this is where the âSurrealâ thing comes in. Because usually Iâm a bit more DIRECT. You know, if I feel happy about something itâs like âYou make me feel this way, you make me happyâ. Whereas on this record I was more trying to understand different people OTHER than myself, and why they behave the way they DO. So in that way it kinda involved a deeper THINKING. Like I wrote âCapricorn Sunâ after stuff that lâd been reading about Capricorns and their behaviour. To where I was actually saying âOK, I am gonna write this song about this personâs behaviour in my life. But now that I understand it, Iâm not just gonna write about my EMOTIONS. Iâm gonna use some of this INFORMATION I haveâ. You know, I actually felt comfortable enough to DO that... Then on a song like âAbove The Nightâ I actually found I was able to write about my SELFISHNESS. So, as opposed to just saying âOh, Iâve found somebody to make me really happyâ, Iâm saying âYou do this for me - which is great - but Iâm sometimes so UNDESERVING of thisâ. So Iâm actually seeing the OTHER aspect of it all, where Iâm saying âNot only are you great, but you kinda balance ME outâ⦠And to actually put that kinda statement in a song is something totally NEW to me. Itâs a completely new JOURNEY.â

The difference between making "Surreal" and Incognitoâs last album - 2010âs "Transatlantic RPM," which featured such US legends as Chaka Khan, Leon Ware and Earth, Wind & Fireâs Al McKay

âThe total difference between the last album and this one is that, where with âTransatlantic RPMâ I was working with people Iâd admired and respected for years whoâve already achieved stuff in this industry, with âSurrealâ Iâve replaced them in equal parts with young people who are at the BEGINNING of their stories and who are DISCOVERING through me. So whereas last time around it was âHey, letâs get together and do something fantasticâ - and you knew you WOULD, because these people have already reached a certain place in their careers - this time it was all about the input of these young, untested people who were like âIâm gonna make my statement on this recordâ! So itâs a totally different ENERGY! Like last time around, if I told Chaka Khan âIâm not sure abut that lineâ and she was like âOh, I LIKE that line baby - letâs KEEP itâ, then Iâm not gonna argue with Chaka KHAN! Whereas if I tell Mo Brandis âI donât like that lineâ, itâs like âReally? OK, letâs CHANGE it!â⦠You know, thereâs a PASSION there, a desire to almost show OFF, to do the right THING, and an attitude of âLetâs keep working at it till we get it RIGHTâ⦠And while neither way is wrong and both ways are right, in that way the two albums for me represent two totally different JOURNEYS. To where, if you saw me making THIS album and then you saw me making the LAST album, youâd see that I was virtually two different PEOPLE!â

Blueyâs upcoming plans for the release of his solo album

âWell, Iâve actually been preparing my solo album now for a while. And so, with me already a quarter of the way through it, it will be completed by the end of summer. I mean, itâs basically just two people doing it - mainly (long-standing Incognito multi-instrumentalist) Richard Bull and myself. And, with me keeping it away from the band, you obviously wonât be hearing the gorgeous voices that youâre USED to hearing, but what you WILL get is a different presentation of my ideas from my OWN voice. Which, while it has its limitations, will - through my ideas of production and influences - hopefully still be delivered in a way that still entices the listener. Plus itâll also be more of a STUDIO production. In that, while when Iâm creating music for Incognito Iâm always thinking âhow are we gonna do this live?â and Iâve got all these MUSICIANS around me, this solo project will basically just be me standing around some synthesizers, or sitting there with guitars and somebody doing beats. You know, itâs basically a way for me to just really put my ideas under a microscope and hopefully end up with something which is as big as the images Iâm LOOKING at through that microscope!... So yeah, Iâm pretty excited.â

Incognito will perform at Islington Assembly Hall, London on May 25

The album "Surreal" is released March 26 through Domeâ¨
Words PETE LEWIS

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