Rhythm. It’s the heartbeat. It’s our breath. It’s how we walk and talk. It’s what stimulates the body to dance. Incognito excels in rhythm. On Tales from the Beach, their debut for Heads Up, the band fuses together jazz, soul, and dance to create a rapturous sound that feeds the mind and body. In the process, Incognito has delivered one of their very best efforts and one of the most genuinely soul-stirring albums of 2008.
What sets Tales from the Beach apart is a refreshing blend of organic musical ingredients and dance-based rhythms. It is scarcely a surprise that the album has a rich live sound since Incognito is known for their rousing concert appearances. From the punch of brass to the staccato rhythmic patterns of flute, the full orchestration is a testament to the vision of Incognito’s mastermind, Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick. For the past 20 years, Bluey has constantly shuffled the elements of the band while honoring his muse.
The inspiration here, as he writes affectionately in the album’s liner notes, is the music he heard as a child on the beaches of Mauritius. Watching how musicians summoned revelers to dance planted the seeds for Bluey’s life work. In a very profound way, Tales from the Beach has gestated since his childhood. Each of the 15 songs emanates a kind of fascination with the all too taken-for-granted power of music to unite, heal, transport, and inspire.
In the floral-scented trail of Bees+Things+Flowers (2006), a stripped-down excursion into the Incognito catalog that featured a few new tracks, Tales from the Beach feels like a creative watershed for Bluey, who wrote and produced the album along with the band members. At nearly 75 minutes, nary a second feels superfluous. While most albums approaching the full-length mark are precarious affairs, Tales from the Beach sustains the listener’s attention, partially because of a cadre of different vocalists, including Incognito mainstays Imaani, Joy Rose, Tony Momrelle, and guest artist Maysa.
“Love, Joy, Understanding” could be a subtitle for the album since every track touches on at least one of these three themes. Delivering Bluey and Matt Cooper’s message is a delicious cocktail of Imaani’s dulcet voice, a furious burst of trombone and trumpet runs, and a rhythm section steeped in tasty disco beats. The lyrics specifically address a relationship under repair but, given the celebratory ambience, the words can be reshaped into a clarion call for harmony among humankind.
“Happy People”, written by Bluey with multi-instrumentalist Francis Hylton, more explicitly expresses that kind of Utopian vision. “Build ourselves a future paradise/And bring our aspirations into view”, sings Tony Momrelle over Hylton’s bass and percussion-driven track. A fusillade of congas stirs the rhythm up and a series of descending chord progressions carry the chorus to blissful heights.
The emotional centerpiece of the album is “I Remember a Time”, another collaboration between Bluey and Matt Cooper and one of a handful of tracks on the album where the B.P.M. count is less club-centric. Cooper handles the majority of the instrumentation here and introduces the song with a beautifully cathartic piano melody. An unobtrusive horn arrangement by Bluey and Trevor Mires decorate the melody with flugelhorn, trombone, and trumpet. A sensitive performance by Maysa infuses the song with even more depth. Her velvety voice transports the listener to that hill overlooking the sea where the narration unfolds. She conveys the ache and bewilderment of lost hopes and the struggle to search for answers. “Will someone please reach out and help me find/The pieces of my shattered dreams?”, she gently pleads. For anyone nursing the wounds of a broken heart, “I Remember a Time” is a healing salve.
“It May Rain Sometime”, a tranquil two-minute interlude composed by Bluey, follows the pathos of “I Remember a Time”. Vocalist Joy Rose sounds like a guardian angel, reminding the crestfallen that hope prevails even when rain deluges the soul.
Completing the cycle of hurt and healing is “Never Look Back”. Within moments of the fading notes of the Fender Rhodes on “It May Rain Sometime”, a melancholy sax solo by Paul Greenwood takes center stage. Trevor Mires and Sid Gauld join on trombone and trumpet. Tracing the thematic arch led by the two preceding songs, the phrasing of the notes is like a sequence of questions marks. The notes conjure a sense of uncertainty, akin to what happens when a relationship ends, that is until Richard Bull’s drum trills launches a full-on explosion of Latin-jazz. Appropriately, it’s Maysa whose vocalise dresses the track. The carefree spirit of her wordless expression symbolizes how her character in “I Remember a Time” has weathered the storm of lost love. Even the title – “Never Look Back” — is a rejoinder to “I Remember a Time”. The seven-minute groove seems to be saying just that – keep going.
I’d be remiss not to mention “I’ve Been Waiting”, the album’s outstanding first single. This is the kind of track you crave and induces a feverish need be replayed over and over. Simon Grey co-wrote the song with Bluey and plays no less than six of the instruments. He’s responsible for the throbbing bass line, which drives the funky rhythm along. Horns decorate the melody and Bluey wistfully strums his Fender Stratocaster underneath the groove.
Maysa’s voice gleefully intones, “I’ve been waiting for the chance to make you mine”. This is exactly what Incognito has accomplished with Tales from the Beach. They take hold of your body and mind to make your life a little better and a whole lot groovier for 75 minutes.