“Summer is the time when one sheds one’s tensions with one’s clothes, and the right kind of day is jeweled balm for the battered spirit. A few of those days and you can become drunk with the belief that all’s right with the world”, so Ada Louise Huxtable is quoted on the floral-designed inlay of Bees+Things+Flowers. Released a day after Christmas on EMI’s Narada Jazz label in the U.S., the latest album by Incognito is a jolt of Vitamin D for the seasonally grey northern hemisphere. It’s an album that breezily transports listeners to Incognito’s world of Bahamian breezes and honeysuckle.
Under the tutelage of Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick, Incognito is the most successful contemporary band to have bridged jazz and soul. On this ode to summer, Bluey — who produced the album — utilizes a cadre of different vocalists and eschews smooth-jazz in favor of earthy musical arrangements that sway like a field of wildflowers. The track list is as varied: new songs, borrowed songs, and re-conceived arrangements of Incognito classics. Songs like “Always There”, “Deep Waters”, and “Still a Friend of Mine”, long beloved by fans, are stripped to their acoustic DNA and radiate the glow of new life on Bees+Things+Flowers.
Track one, Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”, sets the mood for the entire album. The mantra-like lyrics emit a poppy perfume that hook the listener and become a state of mind. The soulful and sensual voice of Joy Rose is the perfect conduit to conjure images of folks “getting down” in the sunshine. (The album’s title, by the way, is lifted from this song.)
What follows is a cool dose of acoustic soul on a pair of re-arranged Incognito club hits. Imaani’s voice blooms like a flower within the sparse but fragrant musical arrangement on “Everyday”. The less-is-more element of percussion by Karl Vandenbosche exemplifies the song’s deceptively simple uptempo to downtempo re-design. “Always There”, the emotional center of the album, is one of the album’s strongest tracks. “Such a good feeling/ That’s where I want to be/ Locked in your prison/ Of total ecstasy” cries Joceyln Brown. That the song succeeds when laid bare with acoustic guitar, strings, and Brown’s evocative vocal performance is a testament to Bluey’s intuitive vision of how to make the familiar new.
Nestled between these two songs is a creative interpretation of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”. Simon Hale’s exquisite string arrangements have personality to spare during the song’s introduction. Whereas street sounds served the original 1966 hit, the strings create palpable dissonance and tension, like cracks in the pavement. A dreamy remake of “Tin Man” by America also succeeds with Incognito’s stellar musicians, most notably Dominic Glover on flügelhorn.
The only misstep of the cover songs -– and of the whole album — is a nine-minute version of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World”. Some masterpieces cannot be improved, much less lengthened, and this remake only prompts the listener to seek the original. It’s also the album’s closing statement. A less audacious choice to bookend the album would have been “You Are Golden”, one of a few excellent new songs composed by Bluey for Bees+Things+Flowers. Vocalist Tony Momrelle infuses the lyrics “When my mind’s ablaze and life a maze, you see me through” with a gentle earnestness that could be about the tenderness shared between lovers or even the inspiring power of the sun.
To paraphrase Albert Camus, Bees+Things+Flowers evokes the invincible summer in listeners, irrespective of equatorial vantage point. Whether the early morning light shed by “Still a Friend of Mine”, the noontime sunniness of “Raise”, or the midnight mood on “Crave”, the members of Incognito effectively use music to capture the subtleties that shape quotidian life. All’s right in Incognito’s world.