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Incognito Tones Things Down On Latest Release, "Bees+Things+Flowers"

January 21st, 2007 10:00am EST
IncognitoAnyone 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 as "Bluey."

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.

IncognitoHowever, 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."

More philosophically, 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."


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