Never knowingly undersouled

George Benson wanted to get back to his roots. So he called Bluey.
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The Independent Culture
The chorus of a much-loved old Crusaders jazz-funk anthem goes: "Keep on, keep that same old feeling". The group Incognito (property of writer, guitarist and producer Jean-Paul Maunick, aka Bluey) has kept on keeping on since the late 1970s, when car stickers saying "If it ain't jazz it ain't worth a funk" were de rigueur for Escort-driving aspirational soul boys and girls. Then, the in-car entertainment was driven by the selections of Sunday night radio's Robbie Vincent Show, the essential guide to that terra incognita where smooth soul began to shade into jazzy funk, and vice versa.

A true child of those times, Bluey didn't just keep the faith - achieving the amazing feat of still being hip enough 10 years after his group's debut album to earn a place in Gilles Peterson's inaugural Talkin' Loud roster - he began gradually to exert an influence on his original inspirations: those jazz-funk legends whose successful way with a svelte, old-school groove had given way with time to musical flab.

As well as completing a new Incognito album, 100 and Rising, Bluey has also been doing the production for the latest album by George Benson, adding a couple of tracks to a forthcoming Ramsey Lewis set, and fielding offers from Al Jarreau. It's the tail wagging the dog, as the story has come full circle with a London soul-boy neophyte eventually getting the opportunity to turn his heroes back on to the roots they left behind in a surfeit of MOR over-styling. It's also a very unlikely scenario. A few years ago, Incognito live was the party band par excellence but little else, a dead cert for all kinds of functions, putting out "Always There" and other jazz-funk greats with a line-up of Jazz Warrior horns and a shifting amalgam of vocalists; Jocelyn Brown, of "Always There" fame, was too expensive to take out on the road, and the band had to make do with deps. They could even be relied upon for requests of old war-horses by the likes of Lonnie Liston Smith; if Irish showbands had cottoned on to jazz-funk, Incognito would be the band to beat.

So when producer Tommy LiPuma called with the offer of producing the new Benson album, it was, for Bluey, "like a guy getting picked for the international side and finding out he's been made captain on the same day; it was a call from God, know what I mean?, a call from your master saying 'Cool'." He was already drowning in respect since Stevie Wonder had picked out Incognito's version of "Don't You Worry about a Thing" as the best cover of one of his songs. "I've got a host of American stars calling me," Bluey says, "and I think that it's because I remind them of themselves; I remind them of something they already are but have somehow got away from and become a little bit cabaret."

So what, then, has he got? "They made the music, but as a listener I was romantically attached to it," he says. "When I open up a Stevie Wonder, George Benson or Santana album I remember that girlfriend, that summer at school; I remember that playing field and that acoustic guitar, chilling out and playing that tune. It's like a photograph album. They thought that you had to keep changing and that you had to start using the technology that was the going thing. But those records weren't made because of the technology. They were made because of the emotional content. What I'm trying to do with my music is still rely on the emotional content. I'm trying to make you weep."

There is, however, some corporate unease over the Benson album, as its release has been put back from this summer to next year. Bluey, though, is too busy putting "know what I mean" on the end of sentences to care.

His new single, Incognito's "Everyday", is already high in the charts and it represents perfectly the credo for his music: the bass slaps, the keyboard supplies a housey update on the old-school chords, the strings soar with Philly soul and the guest vocalists do their trademark stuff on lyrics that, for all their banality (eg "A love like ours should surely last until the end of time"), are absolutely representative of the jazz- funk thang.

"I'm not afraid of the subject of love," says Bluey. "I'm not afraid of sounding lush, and I'm not trying to sound like the old days, 'cos I was part of the old days. I've never stopped using the Fender Rhodes since the Seventies, because it's like, is there anything else?" The new album, with lush strings (by Simon Hale) and horny horns (by Gerard Presencer), is commendably old-school, with some lovely laid-back instrumentals. At its best it's like driving to Brighton and back in your cabriolet with the sound system blasting out jazz-funk greats. This time, however, they're Bluey's own.

n '100 and Rising' is released this week on the Talkin' Loud label