paying attention to the upper echelon of soul music's ever changing
face knows the name Incognito. More than the moniker of a great
band, Incognito is a brand—a guaranteed one-stop for sophisticated,
uplifting U.K.-spun soul-jazz, stamped by a cavalcade of top-notch
vocal talent, sweeping arrangements for rhythm section, horns and
strings, substance-fueled lyrical content and the unflagging leadership
of guitarist/songwriter Jean-Paul Maunick, affectionately known
Over a 27-year career,
London-based Mobo Award winners Incognito made stateside strides
with both dreamy urban adult/Quiet Storm fare such as "Deep
Waters" and "Still a Friend of Mine," as well as
jazzy horn-kissed club jams like "Everyday" and a cover
of the Ronnie Laws/Side Effect classic "Always There."
Fans will be glad to know that all four of those songs can be found
on their latest album, Bees + Things + Flowers—only they'll
sound nothing like the arrangements to which they've grown accustomed.
"It was time for
me to break away from making records the way I was doing them,"
the man called Bluey affirmatively states. "A bit of a formula
was creeping in. It was time to put a stick in the spoke!"
This departure marks an artistic spike in the canon of Incognito
with the largely acoustic and meditatively down-tempo Bees + Things
+ Flowers, the band's first album affiliated with hallowed jazz
giants Blue Note Records via Narada Jazz.
The CD’s intriguing
title stems from the impressionistic, Haiku-like lyrics of Acid
Jazz godfather Roy Ayers' summer of `76 classic "Everybody
Loves the Sunshine," the song with which Incognito opens its
spellbinding new album. Regarding the title, Bluey comments, "I
was looking for something that said 'new beginning' or 'circle of
life,' but didn't want to be so obvious about it. Then Roy's words
hit me - bees and flowers - that's the circle of life right there!
What hipper way to say it? We're making a statement with this record.
"By revisiting our own songs, our borrowed songs plus a few
new songs, we're showing that music isn't one dimensional."
Fittingly, Bees + Things
+ Flowers was conceived and recorded over the summer of 2006. Bluey
composed the first two new songs, "You Are Golden" and
"Raise" on his acoustic guitar lounging poolside in the
serenity of Bali. The former was later recorded pretty much as conceived
while the latter was flipped into a turbulent drum and bass scorcher.
However, the crux of the album came when Bluey and keyboardist Matt
Cooper sat down and wrote another new song called "Crave"...
in all of 20 minutes. "We were looking for a piano, but one
wasn't available, so we used a Fender Rhodes electric piano. Right
then, I ditched the idea of this being an all-acoustic record. The
warmth of that sound became the framework for the entire CD. I was
also considering using an amplified acoustic bass guitar. But two
nights before the session, I was listening to Bill Withers' Live
at Carnegie Hall and it brought me to another quick conclusion—I
could use electric bass in this context. Nice."
Once the new songs were
in place, Bluey selected four key cover songs to include: John Sebastian's
"Summer in the City" (with nods to the balmy arrangement
Quincy Jones later recorded as well as a string arrangement that
mirrors the dark, off-minor work of David Axelrod), America's "Tin
Man," Earth Wind & Fire's "That's Way of the World"
and the aforementioned Roy Ayers track. "All of that `70s music
was my 'inspiration information' growing up," Bluey shares,
“a time of purity when we as people were allowed to be children,
take chances and experiment."
Bluey continues, "'That's the Way of The World' was written
as a warning for the children of tomorrow. Anyone who really listens
to that lyric would never expose their children to sitting in front
of a computer all day. Whatever we put inside their brains shapes
the future. Songs like that were like messages from the gods to
me. Maurice White and Charles Stepney were the modern day disciples...prophets
with the gifts of words and music. To some extent, those songs were
not heeded. But none of it is wasted if we resurrect the sentiment
and keep spreading the word. Like the America song says: 'Oz never
gave anything to the Tin Man that he didn't already have.'"
Next were the fresh approaches
to songs Incognito had already recorded. "I wanted to take
the listener to the origin of some of the hits like 'Still a Friend
of Mine'—a song I wrote without any instrumentation, just
a lyric and a drum machine conga beat. I only added the strings
to give it something it was missing—the melancholic atmosphere
in my being when I wrote it. It's the closest you'll get to what
I had in my brain."
Most miraculously, Bluey
corralled the largest number of Incognito singing stars in one album
than ever before—singers such as Maysa, Carleen Anderson,
Imaani, Joy Rose, Tony Momrelle and Tyrone Henry. "I didn't
set out to use so many," Bluey insists. "It just happened
when I started thinking of who would sound best on what song. For
instance, Jocelyn Brown was the last element I recorded on this
album on 'Always There.' She couldn't believe I wanted her to sing
in her falsetto—a beautiful sound she rarely goes to because
people assume that if they've got Jocelyn Brown in the studio, they've
got to have her scream! I wanted people to really listen to the
words this time. I did the same thing to my song 'Everyday.' Why
are we always mixing something from down-tempo to up-tempo? We've
done remixes to get people to dance. Now I say let's make dancers
listen to the lyrics for a completely different experience."
That Bees + Things +
Flowers was recorded in just six consecutive days speaks volumes
for the organic flow that defined the proceedings. For the horn
arrangements, Bluey chose the burnished glow of euphonium and flugelhorn
over the typically punchier saxophone, trumpet and trombone configuration.
Strings were added to several of the songs in one half-day session.
Overall, the band gelled like never before. "Part of the reason
for that," Bluey adds jokingly, "is that the musicians
love football (soccer) so much that they were doing first takes
just so they could get back to the ‘tele’ and watch
the World Cup! It was summer and the sun was baking down. London
isn't usually like that. The atmosphere was like a celebration—a
very healing, soothing and energy-giving thing. It made us forget
all the troubles of the world for awhile."
Incognito has been affiliated
with several great labels including the British pioneering acid
jazz imprint Talking Loud and American jazz stalwarts Verve. But
Bluey—equal parts music fan and musicologist—is especially
jazzed to have his custom Rice Records imprint under the umbrella
of the distinguished Blue Note Label Group. "Blue Note played
a huge part in the music that has influenced me. They made movements
happen in the music world. Years ago I was honored to do a compilation
of Donald Byrd's music for them. I consider (Blue Note President)
Bruce Lundvall to be one of the unsung heroes of the music industry.
I aspire to be just like him, once I come off the road for good."
Reflecting on how Incognito's
music has affected fans around the globe in the past, Bluey shares,
"I've had people in Japan, Indonesia, South America and Europe
come up after shows and tell me, 'Bluey, your music saw me through
a rough period.' I think, 'I wrote this thing with my innocent heart
so far away from here, yet it's touched someone here.' That's when
I realize we can't fix the people, but we can make them aware of
what is within. I believe we're on this planet to use language and
music to set moods and emotions. Part of that is to strip things
down. That was the beauty of doing Bees + Things + Flowers. It shows
how we really feel about music."
"Some people at
the label have expressed that they like the feel of the new record
so much they already want Vol. 2," Bluey concludes. "I
may do that, but I'm looking forward to doing other things, like
a fully orchestrated big beat album. That's the excitement of doing
new and crazy things. Bees + Things + Flowers marks our first giant
step into blazing new territories."