A band that’s been around for a while creates a body of work and a sound. That sound becomes something of security blanket for long time fans. The listener hears the opening bars of any tune and discernment can be seen in smiles and nodding heads that mark the return of friend. And then there is Incognito. Perhaps due to the rotating lineup revolving around the constant figure of Jean Paul “Bluey” Maunick, fans can’t really hang their collective hats on a signature Incognito sound.
I got hipped to Incognito around the time that a lot of American listeners came to the band – in 1994 when Positivity dropped. That project, one of the best albums in the 1990s, contained radio friendly hits such as “Deep Waters” and “Still a Friend of Mine,” but there wasn’t a bad tune on the joint. Bluey crafted an album that featured musicians who knew how to make his fusion of funk, jazz and progressive R&B really cook and singers like Baltimore native Maysa Leak who possessed vocals that appealed to the American music listener.
The next album, 100 Degrees and Rising, flipped the script 180 degrees. That album moved toward the dance-oriented tracks with strong soulful vocals favored by Europeans. The next two Incognito projects, Beneath the Surface and No Time Like the Future, embarked on a deeper exploration of soul and R&B. In between those projects, Bluey released an album under the name Inner Shade that merged the American and European sounds.
This sort of independent streak is supposed to elicit a backlash among fans, but that hasn’t happened for Incognito. The loyal fans continued to stick with the band through the changes in sound and lineup, and they will be richly rewarded when they pick up Incognito’s latest record – the excellent Surreal.
Bluey continues his tradition of locating new voices who bring energy to his tracks. In this case, he matches the energetic tenor of Mo Brandis with the upbeat funk tune “Goodbye To Yesterday.” That track takes on the theme of shaking loose from the inertia and shackles that keep us in comfortable but unfulfilling places. The arrangement, propelled by the rolling bass line is matched by Brandis’s assertive rendering of the song’s lyrics.
Maysa, Bluey’s longtime collaborator, lends her sultry soprano to “Capricorn Sun.” The song’s mid-tempo pace and jazzy flourishes by the horns play to Maysa’s jazz influenced vocals. The veteran seems intent on showing the younger vocalists that there is no substitute for experience as she dives into a bag of jazz tricks by adding a bit of vocal improv to the mix.
Bluey includes a couple of instrumental tracks, “Rivers On The Sun” and “Thoughtful Fantasies,” that showcase the creativity of his sidemen, and listeners will come away impressed. However, Surreal is a record that celebrates great vocals and top-flight lyricism and a mix of musical styles that incorporates everything that Incognito has explored – and its many fans have grown to love - over the course of three plus decades. Highly Recommended.
By Howard Dukes