INCOGNITO: LIVE REVIEW NOVEMBER 2017
THE BASEMENT, SYDNEY
THURSDAY 2 NOVEMBER, 2017 (late show)
Reviewed by PARIS POMPOR
Photos by RIZWAN OMAR (Cyan Pepper)
I’ll admit, before heading to The Basement tonight, that I was struggling to remember the names of the Incognito tunes I liked. Not because there weren’t any, but because like many of the groups who broke out to varying degrees of global acclaim during Britain’s ’90s jazz-funk craze, I’d obviously also filed Incognito memories away. Presumably they were lost in the same rusty bottom drawer in the back of my mind where other bands I associated with Eddie Piller were disintegrating. That was a big mistake.
Piller – head of the ’90s movement’s flagship label Acid Jazz – to my ear often promoted the blandest of bands: groups who thought a fairly pedestrian five-minute sax or flute solo was a good substitute for melody. The same bands also thought little about the art of music arrangement or the thrill of surprising the listener, opting instead to vamp endlessly on a Rhodes or vibes preset over some jazzy guitar chords played through a wah-wah pedal. They usually proved to be neither jazz (unless you’re willing to include folks like Kenny G in that category) nor induce anything nearing the effects produced by dropping acid. To be fair, Piller did introduce many listeners to the Brand New Heavies. Before slowly losing their appeal, that band gave us their still-strong sophomore LP ‘Heavy Rhyme Experience Vol 1,’ which featured everyone from Gang Starr to Grand Puba and The Pharcyde on mic duties. There wasn’t a lot else pushing the envelope on his label, which is probably why Aussie group Crisp (fronted by the young, yet to be mega-star vocalist Sia) said “no thanks” to Piller’s offer of signing-on and waving farewell to Adelaide, and also why co-label founder Gilles Peterson soon exited to set up his own label Talkin’ Loud. It’s on that particular label that Incognito found themselves a world-wide audience.
I should have remembered that Jean-Paul Maunick (aka ‘Bluey’) and his Incognito project was a far more interesting and sophisticated affair than many of the band’s “acid jazz” movement contemporaries. It all came flooding back to me however, just a few songs into tonight’s extended set, well before the familiar refrains of signature tunes like ‘Still A Friend of Mine’ and ‘Deep Waters’ got workouts. Both of these, alongside many other tunes, prompting ecstatic audience responses. In fact the adroit band impressed throughout, with tight arrangements also allowing each player to fully flex their considerable muscle. Bear in mind I caught the second show of the same night, which highlighted not just the assembled skill, but some pretty admirable stamina.
Tonight’s late show began with Bluey inviting on to the stage one-by-one, an economically-inconceivable grand total of 13 personnel – including himself. The unconventional introduction also served as a short plotted history of the band, with Bluey taking us back to his early, hopeful days in London, and even further back to his idyllic island homeland of Mauritius. As the members took their positions, leaving not a lot of room for the leader himself to swing his guitar, anticipation for what the assembled “united nations” ensemble would sound like collectively, was building. They didn’t disappoint. Besides a terrific keyboardist whose name I didn’t catch, was Jamaican-Londoner Francis Hylton on bass (who incidentally once held down the bottom-end in one of Talkin’ Loud’s best bands, Galliano); powerhouse Italian drummer Francesco Mendolia; his towering, rhythmic sparring partner João Caetano (percussion); and fellow Portuguese band member Francisco Sales, also on guitar. A three-piece horn section rounded out the instrumentalists, boasting trombonist Alistair White and trumpeter Sid Gauld, plus a saxophonist whose name I also didn’t catch.
Then it was time to introduce, not two, not three, but four lead vocalists. The soul/sole male amongst them being Mo Brandis, who could be forgiven for looking (not sounding) a little stiff alongside the trio of females who utterly stole tonight’s show: Imaani, Joy Rose and Vanessa Haynes. All three women showed off terrific sets of tonsils. Together the vocalists sounded suitably heavenly in a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s gospel-like tune ‘As’. It came hot on the heels of another Wonder tune, ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing’. Much later came Incognito’s famous Ronnie Laws cover – a successful single for the band – ‘Always There’ alongside tunes from most recent album, ‘In Search Of Better Days’.
The mood all night was one lifted from the title of Incognito’s 1993 album ‘Positivity’, while one of its tunes, ‘Smiling Faces’ pretty much summed up just about everybody I could see in the place. Some of the crowd even treated themselves to paying twice and catching both performances, back to back. Towards the end came a protracted drum solo where, besides the drummer and percussionist, everyone left the stage, but not before returning for a few more rapturous numbers and a sing-a-long Bob Marley farewell when even the diners got off their bums.