Incognito illuminates 'Black Sunshine'

Music Notes

Music: In Concert, CDs

September 09, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

THE SALMON is a miracle -- or maybe I'm just hungry.

I'm sitting across from Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick, who's also enjoying the grilled salmon, and Maysa Leak, who seems slightly unsatisfied with her chicken Caesar salad. We're in a restaurant overlooking the harbor in Baltimore on a day when the sun is just downright mean and there's little hope for a breeze.

I'm having lunch with the two driving forces behind one of the best soul-fusion outfits to come out of England, though Maysa is a B'more homegirl. Incognito, the studio group masterminded by guitarist-producer Bluey, is celebrating 25 years of solid groove-making this year. Its new album, the beautifully titled Adventures in Black Sunshine, is yet another feast of sumptuous acid-jazz joints, shimmering ballads, saucy house cuts.

"There are some radio stations out here in America that won't even mention the title 'cause they think it's racist," says Bluey, a short, stylish man who grew up on Mauritius near Madagascar. His family moved to London when he was around 10 years old, which explains his crisp British accent. "They totally miss the point," he says, rolling his eyes.

Black Sunshine, Bluey says, is "the music that I embraced in the '70s. It was the music of Stevie Wonder, Roy Ayers, Chaka Khan, Charles Stepney, Minnie Riperton. Black Sunshine is that music that traveled from Africa, landed somewhere in America, brought to Brazil and Europe and all those influences."

Indeed, the new album, like Incognito's past efforts, is deeply rooted in the organic, funk-brewed sounds of '70s soul: graceful strings, punchy horns, layered rhythms and thick bass lines. But the sound never feels retro and the formula never seems stale.

On different projects, Bluey has infused pounding, mechanical house beats, which are usually overlaid with live instrumentation and churchy background vocals. Who Needs Love, Incognito's stellar record from last year, blended more Brazilian rhythms. Black Sunshine indulges Bluey's penchant for atmospheric ballads and mid-tempo numbers with cinematic horns and strings.

And Maysa, an integral part of the group during its early '90s commercial peak, has returned to the fold after nearly six years away -- adding her sensuous vocals to Black Sunshine's lushness. When she wasn't recording with Incognito, the Pikesville resident concentrated on her solo career and her family.

"I never really left Incognito," says the soft-spoken Maysa, who's dressed in all black and rocking big hair a la Chaka Khan. "It's like a family, you know."

"In the studio, working with Maysa is easy, man," Bluey adds. "We have that thing. I can communicate to her what I want -- whether I need more power on this line, more breath on that line. It's easy."

What I have always loved about Incognito's music -- especially in this age of deep beats and shallow lyrics -- is the emotional resonance and how the strings, guitars and other instruments respond to the thoughtful lyrics. "Autumn Song," a melancholic number about a faded love, hit home with me almost immediately: The leaves were down / long before the autumn winds arrived ... Oh, yeah, I know all about it. Maysa imbues the song with a certain weariness, but underneath it, a small beam of hope still shines.

"It's important that our songs have a storytelling quality," Bluey says. "Listening to a song is like a good book, you know. It's about a personal connection."

Other highlights on the record include the wistful "Fences and Barriers," the piano-led "Don't Turn My Love Away," and the blaxploitation-style instrumental cut, "The 25th Chapter." We finish our lunch and walk out, shielding our eyes from the angry sun.

Bluey elaborates on the music. "The type of music we play has always embraced the passion and the history of great soul music. It's like a life source, the air we breathe."

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