Incognito - Transatlantic RPM

Incognito
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Producer/songwriter/musician Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick has kept UK acid jazz alive since the 1981 release of Jazz Funk, nearly thirty years ago this year. Over the years, a parade of voices have journeyed through Maunick's jazzier brand of soul, dance, and funk, a few even emerging as esteemed solo artists in their own right, including Kelli Sae, Chris Ballin, Jocelyn Brown, and most notably, Maysa Leak. Seemingly dozens more have come and gone.
Producer/songwriter/musician Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick has kept UK acid jazz alive since the 1981 release of Jazz Funk, nearly thirty years ago this year. Over the years, a parade of voices have journeyed through Maunick's jazzier brand of soul, dance, and funk, a few even emerging as esteemed solo artists in their own right, including Kelli Sae, Chris Ballin, Jocelyn Brown, and most notably, Maysa Leak. Seemingly dozens more have come and gone. Despite 23 albums (including remixes and live recordings) of unparalleled instrumental grooves, Incognito is probably best known the world over for these vocalists and their five-album winning streak of brilliance that began with a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry ‘Bout A Thang" and closed with the sultry "Centre of the Sun." Tribes Vibes + Scribes, Positivity, 100 Degrees and Rising, Beneath The Surface, and No Time Like The Future delivered chic lounge and dance floor hits like "Always There," "Still A Friend of Mine," "I Hear Your Name," "Shade of Blue," "Get Into My Groove," and "Deep Waters," with a sound that soon became a fixed part of the urban sophisticate lifestyle. The ensuing years since those halcyon days have been a mixed bag of occasionally captivating, if often regurgitated, nu-disco sounds and fleeting moments of genius (a stripped down album of covers and Incognito classics, Bees + Things + Flowers, certainly lands in the Einstein column). So, it's not without some hesitancy that one approaches Transatlantic RPM, the 30th anniversary project of this iconic group, wanting it to reach over the band's latter-day unevenness to their glory days of old.

With guest spots by Chaka Khan and Italy's Mario Biondi, Transatlantic RPM is certainly off to an exemplary start. Their duet cover of Boz Scaggs' "Lowdown" should find a welcome home on several radio formats, given the crossover appeal of the stars' fine rendering of this smooth jazz staple. With a husky Barry White solo, Biondi bests his performance with Rufus's "it" girl on the percussion and keys driven "Can't Get Enough." For her part, Khan does a yeoman's job on a flowery song that's a wee bit  too small for Khan's larger-than-life voice, though some Quincy Jones-inspired vocal production on backgrounds manages injects the track with the weight it needs to support the Soul Queen's vocal heft.

Another out-sized legend, Leon Ware, more comfortably slides into the simpler tear-jerker, "Line In The Sand." So, does Ursula Rucker on the spoken-word hybrid, "Gotta," a dry martini, platinum groove that echoes early Gil Scott-Heron and ‘90s Me'shell N'degeocello. Singing in lighter tones than her usual mahogany moan-just when it's needed most-Maysa is oddly lilting on the serviceable "Your Sun My Sky," despite a mournful lyric that un-ironically belies the upbeat track. Getting us back to a more appropriate marriage of message and composition, Joy Rose channels her inner Chaka on the forest fire heat of "1975." Proven gifted, Rose tries her best to infuse "All of My Life" with all the cooing and heart of a ‘70s era Angela Bofill, but Bluey's awkward arrangement here does her no favors, defying even her ample talents. Gratefully, a pendulum swing back in the opposite direction is offered in the orchestral candy of Vanessa Haynes on the powerhouse "Life Ain't Nothing But A Good Thing," a cut well-primed for repetitive radio play. Throughout Transatlantic RPM, whenever song and talent don't align, Incognito's anniversary fizzles like flat champagne with party results worthy of an Edward Albee play. Unusual for Incognito, the featured women on Transatlantic RPM seem to have been handed some of the weaker lines for their spotlight moologues, each attempting to exceed their source material with varying degrees of success. 

In contrast, with Mario Biondi leading the charge, the men seem to fare considerably better this go round, particularly nine-year Incognito vet, Tony Momrelle. Momrelle's "Put A Little Lovin' In Your Heart" and "Make Room For Love" both fully realize the great expectations of a reunion set, with inspired performances and engaging chord progressions to match. Whether singing in an exquisitely breathy tenor, a quirky falsetto, or his enveloping natural, the versatile John-Christian Ulrich of Tortured Soul and Cooly's Hot Box fame is right on Momrelle's heels with the rhythmically intoxicating "Let's Fall In Love Again." Of all the male-led gems, Rapper Luckyiam PSC is delivered the most original and compelling composition, the introspective, almost existential "Everything That We Are."  A rarer treat is offered in hearing Maunick take the lead vocals on "Tell Me What To Do," the novelty of which carries Bluey's sincere, if limited, solo to a pleasing conclusion. Accordingly, Maunick proves much more adept on the instrumental acid jazz of "Expresso Madureira," giving the men a near perfect score in both song selection and execution.

Overall, Transatlantic RPM, falls on the better than middle end of an admirable spectrum of Incognito offerings. With more than enough exciting moments and vintage Incognito performances, the commercial newcomer certainly does its part to remind listeners how and why the ever-relevant acid jazz band has survived thirty years of trends, vocalists, and music industry changes. Yes, innovative arrangements and fresh musical concepts sometimes now elude the older, more creatively comfortable Bluey's fingertips. Yet, the polish, assured musicality, and unwavering infectiousness of Maunick's hallowed dance grooves continues to breathe new life into this venerable institution and deliver the cleansing music of love, hope and inspiration to nearly three appreciative generations of listeners all over the world. Strongly Recommended.  

By L. Michael Gipson

 

 

 
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