An Interview with Incognito
There are many readers who could never think of Incognito as a jazz group, and who are we to argue. No doubt these are people who’d look at Jean-Paul Maunick’s huge band as a funk group with obvious jazz influence. They’d be right. In fact, Incognito’s very first album in 1980 was called Jazz/Funk. These would be the same readers who might be surprised to know that the Cuban jazz group Irakere and young jazz guitar lion Mark Whitfield are both part of new Incognito projects and that the 42 year-old leader has turned his group literally into a finishing school for many of England’s rising young jazz stars including the brilliant trumpeter Kevin Robinson, trombonist Fayyaz Virgi and bassist Randy Hope-Taylor.
Then there may be some readers, maybe a bit over done on smooth jazz, who’d upon hearing Incognito live would consider them one of the jazziest groups they’ve ever heard. They’ve maybe even heard an Incognito instrumental if their local smooth jazz station had any balls, but all smooth jazz fans know the voice of Maysa Leak singing Incognito’s biggest hit “Deep Waters.” To these folks Incognito is deep.
For our readers with open minds, who subscribe to the Duke Ellington theory of only two kinds of music, good and bad, they probably already know all about Incognito. They know that Maunick is known as Bluey. They know that when the acid-jazz scene developed in England in the 80’s, Incognito was the movement’s heart and soul and it’s biggest success commercially, and some would say artistically. Our Senior Writer Mark Ruffin has been following the jazz leanings of Incognito for nearly 15 years and talked to the leader earlier this summer. -ED.
JazzUSA: :We haven’t heard from Incognito in a while Bluey, but now you’re back with a new album, “No Time Like The Future
Bluey:: “No Time Like The Future” is kind of where I left off from on the last album “Beneath The Surface.” If you listen to “Beneath The Surface,” I had just been through a divorce, at the end of it, I had found someone new, but it still a time of reconciliation and fixing things, making sure my kids know that the marriage made be over but dad is dad. I’ve had to deal with trying to let my ex-wife know that I’m going to be one of her best friends come what may. You know it was like personal things in my life that made me look inside myself during that record. So it’s a soulful down-tempo album and it’s a little blue. No you’ve got “No Time Like The Future,” which is like I’m back out again. I’m looking out again. I’m clubbing again. I’m traveling around the world. I’m in the studio in my own recording studio. I’ve formed my record company. I’m working with my son. He’s got a record deal. We’re like going to club together, going out clubbing, and it’s a reflection of that. It’s like living life and celebrating life again.
JazzUSA: You said you’re out clubbing again. I remember ten years ago when you were first gaining some success in England with Incognito, and the acid-jazz scene over there was smoking. The success of both Incognito and the acid-jazz club scene is intertwined, right?
Bluey: Well, it came out of what was called the Brit-funk, or jazz-funk scene in Britain. Giles Petersen, who releases my records in Britain, and is behind the a&r-ing of the band, and one of my best friends, one of my neighbors. He’s the one who coined the term acid-jazz. It kind of describe the music where we come from, so that in the history of it, we’ll be rooted in it. It’s like clubs that were happening in the scene in London were really reflective of what we were doing in Incognito, and the progression of it, yeah.
JazzUSA: What is the club scene in London like now? Has it changed? Because acid-jazz has kind of died over here, kind of.
Bluey: Acid jazz has kind of moved on and has become part of trip-hop, and then it moved again into what is called drum n’ bass. It’s almost like the way music was in the 60’s. Kind of like a cross-cultural sort of thing, and acid-jazz is like part of that. There is like no really one scene, anymore. We’re borrowing elements from everywhere. It’s moved on to somewhere else. I don’t know how to label it, but it’s definitely progressed.
JazzUSA: And this is reflected in some of the tracks on “No Time Like The Future?”
Bluey: Yeah, Acid-jazz is rooted into soul and jazz-funk coming from the 70’s. And there’s still that. You’ll find my influences from listening to Roy Ayers or listening to Charles Stepney arrangements. Even on the opening track, there’s gospel melodies with the funk and the jazz up in there. It’s all throughout this album. But then you’ll find that there is also like a cinematic underpinning on some of the tracks, like “Marrakech,” which borrows from trip-hop and gained influence from film music of the 70’s, Lalo Schrifin scores. You’ll find that in that tune, and you’ll find on “Black Rain,” you’ll find my son taking the manipulation of Richard Bailey’s drums drumming. Ror the first three-quarters of the song you’ll hear some amazing Richard Bailey drums, and for the last quarter, my son, Daniel , is taking the elements of drum n’ bass, but takes the drums and morph them into a more programmed sound at the end and takes it into a different kind of groove.
JazzUSA: Bluey, Charles Stepney’s name rolled off your tongue like you say his name everyday.
Bluey: Well, he means an awful lot.
JazzUSA: I think we’ve talked about him before.
Bluey: Yeah, I think so, because he’s from your hometown.
JazzUSA: Right, and he’s really big to us in Chicago, and right when you said his name, I could hear it in “Beneath The Surface,” where you really experimented with strings.
Bluey: That’s right. If you listen to what Charles did with his arrangements, so much of today’s mainstream music has Charles Stepney’s influence on it. If you want dark, if you want less-filled, if you want something that draws you in, call-up Charles Stepney’s rules, and it’s like you’ll win every time. The string arranger I work with, I was playing him Charles Stepney’s stuff. I was playing him Minnie Riperton albums, and I was getting into Chess(Records) stuff that I was listening to in the 70’s and it’s so relevant to now. You know, like certain things are so classic. They will always be the trend no matter what time, what era. Great stuff is great stuff. That’s what I like about the future. The future is going to be a classic place. If you look at modern fashion, if you look at what designers are creating today, they borrow from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, and yet, it’s like modern, current. If you look at the new Jaguar, they’ve finally bought a face back into the car, the way it used to be in the 60’s, and the car looks great again. It’s got a face. Certain things are tried and tested, but you can put new things to it, you can put a modern trend to it. It’s like great things stand the test of time and always will and Charles Stepney’s music is like that. It’s always going to part of whatever is classic in the future.
JazzUSA: A few years ago, I did the liner notes for a Chess re-issue of two Charles Stepney produced albums by Ramsey Lewis, “Mother Nature’s Son” and “Maiden Voyage.” He did both of these albums within a year, which I suppose is far different from how long it took you to do “No Time Like The Future.”
Bluey: I usually do five or six albums a year. In this last couple of years, I actually have done like four. They just can’t all be Incognito albums. Unfortunately, people don’t want to follow an album with an album these days. So I have to do other projects. Therefore, I formed my own label, Rice, and I have a band called Inner Shade, which are members of Incognito. It’s out on N-Coded Music over here. I formed my own label so I can do Maysa’s (Leak) second solo album, which is coming out this year as well on my label. I’m trying to get more records out because I like the way they used to do it in the old days. That’s the way I like to work, the way they used to do in the old days.
JazzUSA: I was at a party not too long ago and an Incognito tune came on, and someone asked me had I heard Incognito-lite. The person was talking about Inner Shade, and when I did finally hear it, I thought that the Incognito-lite rap wasn’t fair. Except for Randy Hope-Taylor’s bass line, it’s a different feel, but your influence is obvious.
Bluey: Obviously, I needed to stick close to home. It’s one of the first records I was doing for my label. I wanted to learn to walk before I could run. That’s why I wanted to do Maysa and Inner Shade first, they’re members of Incognito. These people know me. They also know I’m putting musicians through college. I’m trying to bring in young people like my son. Inner Shade was a platform for some of these younger musicians to work with the established musicians in Incognito. It allowed them to learn to make a album. It was quite experimental, and because of it, we’ve got some experimental sounds like our version of (Freddie Hubbard’s) “Little Sunflower,” I wasn’t afraid to experiment with drum n’ bass and various moods. It was more experimental than anything I’d done previous. It allowed me to see how far I could go, and it was a block leading to trying different ideas on the Incognito record. It is different in terms of sound. Usually an Incognito album only feature me as the guitarist on the record and it’s not guitar orientated, where as if you listen to the Inner Shade album, you’ll find that Mark Whitfield is featured on it, which makes it guitar orientated. You won’t find that on an Incognito record.
JazzUSA: If Inner Shade took off, does that mean you lose Randy as a bassist?
Bluey: Actually, I’ve lost Randy at the moment. He’s on the Jeff Beck album and he’s touring with Jeff Beck. So he’s coming out on the road whenever he can at the moment. I’ve always had two bass players with the group, Randy and a guy named Julian Crampton who did most of “100 Degrees and Rising.” They shared half the work on the new album. Incognito is like a musical institution. It’s bigger than all the players. It’ll always survive. It’s like a school.
JazzUSA:: But the spectacular Mr. Taylor is the only bassist you’ve ever toured America with, right?
Bluey: Yeah, he’s the only one we’ve toured over here with, but in England, we’ve used other players. Other here, people remember us for the line-up we bring over, where the idea of the band is much bigger than that.
JazzUSA: People in Europe would know that more than we would over here. And speaking of both countries, Joycelyn Brown and Maysa are both from the United States, what about the new singer Karen Bernod?
Bluey: (laughs) Yeah, she is too.
JazzUSA: Did she, like Maysa and Miss Brown, go over there to make it? Where did you find this woman?
Bluey: She was touring with Erikah Badu and also with D’Angelo and she’d been duetting with Luther Vandross recently. She came to my attention through my girlfriend who works at Verve, and I was looking for a third singer at the time. What I like about these women are they are incredible vocalists, but they’re very humble people. They don’t have a diva-ish attitude that so many lead singers suffer from.
JazzUSA: Well Maysa and Joycelyn Brown spent a lot of time singing background for other folks.
Bluey: That’s right and for me I love these bridesmaids. They’ve never quite been the brides, but in a way, that’s the attraction. That’s been the beauty of who they are as people and I function with them well. Sometimes you get great singers in the studio, but their egos are like so big that you don’t enjoy the experience. For me, it’s like, if the record turns out to be great, brilliant, it’s usually because the experience of doing it has been amazing too, the connection among people, the human conversation. JaazUSA: Although Joycely Brown did have a major worldwide hit?
Bluey: “Somebody Else’s Guy,” which I’m playing on a new version of it funny enough. She’s recording her new album right now. So Joycelyn, for me is one of those incredible people that like no matter who you are, if you meet Joycelyn, and sat down with her, you’ll going to come out wiser. You’re going to feel that you’ve been in the presence of somebody great. Sometimes in a world where so often you’re disappointed when you meet your heroes, it’s wonderful that people like Joycelyn and Stevie Wonder are around.
JazzUSA: The Cuban group Irakere is on one track. Where’d you run into Irakere at?
Bluey: Irakere and I have had a relationship for the last ten years. They’ve been coming to Britain playing Ronnie Scott’s and every time I’ve gone and seen them, I realized they didn’t get much money for doing those gigs. They have to send money back to Cuba for the government and they get paid very little in Britain. So what I’ve tried to do is for the last ten years, every time it’s been possible for me, I’ve organized a session for them to come along. I’ve got tapes in my wardrobe at home with like Irakere and Incognito featuring Roy Ayers on vibes.
Bluey: Man, I’ve got mad tapes. I’ve got mad, mad tapes. For me I just create these sessions so that I can like earn a bit more money and I can have a great time with them and learn and get an education.
JazzUSA: But what are you going to do with these tapes?
Bluey: They’re all these tapes. Some may just sit there forever because bureaucracies, people record companies or whatever, they can’t come to agreements. They want unreasonable fees. So what I’ve tried to do is just create sessions each time, and if it’s possible for something to work out, fine. In this case, it worked out fine because its just Irakere and Incognito, their horn section instead of ours just did this one tune for the album. I will look up to these musicians as long as they come over and tour.
JazzUSA: I don’t want to get into politics, but they shouldn’t have legal problems in England and even in the U.S., I think they only license their records that were already released in Cuba.
Bluey: It’s not because of them. I always recorded them with? I can’t mention any names, but believe me, I only recorded them with incredible artists. I’ve already said Roy, but he’s only the tip. We just couldn’t get management and people to agree without exorbitant fees. What I’ve been trying to do for years is try to set up a vehicle where no matter who you are, that’s why the name Incognito, what walk of life you’re from, or what your background is, if you’ve got something musical to offer, the door is open for you
JazzUSA: Is there a chance an Irakere record could happen on you label?
Bluey: It’s funny you should mention that, I’ve been talking to the Japanese about getting signed up, if not the whole band, then the Irakere horns. It’s funny you should ask me that.
JazzUSA: When is the Incognito U.S. tour?
Bluey: From mid September through mid October, we’ll be doing an extensive U.S. tour.
JazzUSA: I remember on one of your early tours, you came out with mostly new material. And after the show, we were hanging and I talked to you about it, because I thought it was a mistake, but then “Positivity” became such a big hit and I saw your point. I was kind of surprised when you did the same thing for the “100 Degrees And Rising” tour after having such a big hit album before. Now there’s been a few years between a couple of albums, what now? On this tour, do you just concentrate again on what’s on the current record and ignore that catalog from seven albums.
Bluey: Right now, of course, we’re promoting a couple of things from the new album. Right now we’re of the mindset that too many people are out there just to sell a record. They’re just out there to promote a record. We’re going to go out there and have some fun. There are no two gigs that are going to be the same anywhere in the world for us this time. And even the way we’ve scheduled the touring, we’re playing like Red Square in Russia. We’ve picked some wild places to play. We’re gonna make one of those life journeys that make you richer for going out there. Be guaranteed that we’re gonna offer a show that really comes from the heart and full of energy.
JazzUSA: If this was the 70’s Bluey, you’d have plenty of competition with a zillion other self-contained bands playing jazz/funk, but there’s hardly any now.
Bluey: It’s becoming harder for everybody. I’ve had to drop one musician to make the band smaller in order to bring in the cost of this tour. It’s the finances. Things have changed. People sell less records worldwide these days. You can get in the top 20 with like selling like even a tenth of what you had to sell ten years ago. It’s difficult times. But I got into music not to make money, I got into music because I love it. Now I have to understand that if I want to keep my vehicle going, my vision of music, I have to also be aware of not just the business of music, but the music business. I’m becoming wiser. I’ve got my own label. I just intend to keep this dream alive because a dream is as great as any individual.
Be sure to visit the Incognito Everyday Web Site.