Maysa Leak is an artist who came to my attention after first hearing her expert,smokey alto in the early aughts. The Baltimore native graduated from Morgan State University with a degree in classical performance. She performed in the Morgan State Choir. It was there she met Stevie Wonder,who brought her in to be a backup singer in his late 80’s/early 90’s edition of Wonderlove. She was most prominent on his soundtrack for the 1991 Spike Lee Joint Jungle Fever. She released her solo debut in 1995 as well. While performing with different groups over the years,its a clear memory where I first heard her.
During the same time I was deep into bands like Jamiroquai,discovering Rufus/Chaka Khan,Miles Davis and the jazzy side of funk my mom picked up a CD called No Time Like The Future by Incognito. This is the first time I ever heard Maysa singing on songs such as “Get Into My Groove”,which I’ve already covered here. Her jazzy style permeates much of her life,so much so that she named her daughter Jazz. And that jazzy groove attracted me to more and more Incognito albums over the years. Their 2008 album Tales From The Beach contained one of my favorite songs sung by her on “I’ve Been Waiting”.
Maysa begins the song by saying “if my heart should betray my emotions,I hope you understand just what it is I’ve been feeling”. Following that,a VERY Stevie Wonder like major/minor jazz chord progression played on a high and bass toned Oberheim synthesizer begins the musical end of the song. This consists of a flutter wah wah guiter and light cymbal/bass drums kicking off a thick slap bass line playing along three chords. After a couple bars of that the slow,funky drums come in along with the Fender Rhodes electric piano and Bluey’s liquid rhythm guitar.
In between this refrain,there’s a brief musical bridge which brings in the tight horn charts-which play call and response to Maysa’s vocals. The Rhodes also plays a strong counter melody to this as well. When the chorus comes in,Maysa is multi tracked within a sea of percussive drums,wah wah guitar,dancing horn charts and the even snakier slap bass line. Just before the second round of choruses and refrains,the keyboards take over for yet another short bridge on the outro. The music strips down to its most percussive elements on the final choruses as the song closes out on a breezy Rhodes coda.
One day,I’m hoping Incognito will be somewhat more recognized worldwide for their often ingenious continuation of 70’s jazz funk in the modern age. Again as has been a continuing theme with me lately,this is a complexly arranged composition. The chord progressions and melodic changes,along with the changes in instrumental soloing throughout,make this one of the most sleekly arranged jazz-funk jams of the new millennium. Maysa’s strong personality and determined “grown folks” outlook on sensuality really make this one of 2008’s major jams of the year for me,anyway.
Filed under 2008, Baltimore, drums, Fender Rhodes, horns, Incognito, jazz funk, Maysa, Morgan State Choir, Morgan State University, rhythm guitar, slap bass, Stevie Wonder, synthesizers, wah wah guitar, Wonderlove
Philadelphia’s original sisters of soul Kathy,Debbie,Joni and Kim Sledge took their beautiful traded vocal leads and harmonies into the public consciousness in 1975. Five years and two albums later they began a hugely successful period with Nile Rodgers’ Chic organization-churning out songs that,among many excellent ones,include the anthem “We Are Family”. After 1985 the group had an eight year hiatus from recording to emerge as a trio,produced by the British acid jazz outfit Incognito, while Kathy pursued a solo career.
Another seven years later the group re-emerged,again as a trio, with a brand new album called African Eyes. It was independently released,self produced,self written and the only reason I ever heard about it was because of my mother. She very much enjoyed hearing new music at the now defunct Borders Books & Music listening stations during the late 1990’s. This particular album seemed to not only surprise but very much excite her,which I know from experience is somewhat rare in this case. When I heard the title song for this album later that day? I completely understood her enthusiasm for it. And thanks to my friend from Kiev, Ukraine Andrew Osterov? I can now present this song to you.
The song begins with a pounding drum call before one of the sisters shouts out a declarative dialog in what sounds like Portuguese or Spanish. After this the percussive drum parts,speeding up and slowing down with each vocal refrain, breaks out into an intense uptempo frenzy accented by first by a steely slap bass pop from Kevin Mauch on the body of the song,and than joined by a jazzy improvised muted trumpet melody courtesy of Jessie Maguire on the choruses. The bridge of the song returns to a much cooler variation of the percussive drumming-juxtaposing the sounds of children playing with a full solo from that muted trumpet and an African flute before returning to the chorus as the song fades to a close.
Never before or since I heard or even conceived of the Sledge sisters as creating music that was so instrumentally and thematically Afrocentric. The song musically embraces the strong ethnic identification inherent in the original 70’s funk era-with it’s percussive rhythms and jazz oriented horn voicings. Even the solos and harmonies of the Sledge’s vocals have a totally rhythmic freedom in their projection. Lyrically the song boldly encourages young black American’s to see the beauty in their African roots-even declaring “civilization started near the Euphrates,when Adam and Eve started creating babies with those eyes”. Even evoking the chorus of their hit “We Are Family” with a new cultural context on the bridge of the song. To me this is the epitome of Sister Sledges musical journey. And impressed the music world so much that the African Eyes album was nominated for a best produced CD Grammy. The result is a high water mark for them in terms of funky cultural identity.
Filed under 1990s, Africa, Afrocentrism, Debbie Sledge, Funk, Incognito, Jazz, Joni Sledge, Kathy Sledge, Kim Sledge, Nile Rodgers, percussion, Sister Sledge, slap bass, trumpet
Following the post disco freeze out of most soul and funk music in the early 80’s? It would seem that the British music scene really kept the progression of that level of instrumental and melodic eloquence continuing. It can be heard in funk oriented bands of the new wave era such as Englands Spandau Ballet,Heaven 17,Level 42,Duran Duran and,on the rockier side of it The Clash and former Sex Pistol John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. There was also a strong multi racial jazz based end of this scene that would emerge with Matt Bianco, which originally featured their very soulful lead singer Basia,Sade and Jean Paul Maunik’s Incognito. After a one off recording in the early 80’s,the band didn’t re-emerge again until the 90’s. During this time Incognito helped pioneer with acid jazz fusion of American jazz/funk and house music. At the very end of the decade in 1999,they released their album ‘No Time Like The Future’-featuring the song that really got me deeply into their music entitled “Get Into My Groove”.
Kicking off with a counting down type snare drum,the song goes into what is basically a contemporary hip-hop/soul drum machine rhythm with some beautifully orchestrated,cinematic soul strings. Shortly after these spirited horn charts kick in,along with two prominant bass lines in a wah wah fueled electric solo and a walking Moog synth bass one. After a brief vocalese scat from Jamiroquai front man Jason Kay,Wonderlove alumni Maysa Leak comes in for the lead vocal. She is talking about someone,a politician maybe, who is willing to preach about the woes of the world while taking no specific actions to correct them-asking “tell me how do you change the world if you haven’t got the nerve”. On the melodically ascending chorus Maysa asks this invidual to come and feel her groove,step into her shoes and that to “get into my mind,you gotta get into my groove”. After a consoling and very jazzy bridge,the song repeats that chorus with variations to the songs conclusion.
On a personal level? I feel that the post Columbine/pre (alleged) Y2K world of 1999,one defined by a great deal of paranoia and lack of hope,was in need of “people music” with a message perhaps more so than any other time in history. In America people such as Erykah Badu were beginning to deliver an Afrofuturist musical vibration of their own. But this combination of a former Stevie Wonder singer,along with a British acid jazz band also featuring backup vocals from…the lead singer of the biggest crossover act of the British acid jazz funk scene in America made a bold statement (to me anyway) that the humanistic message of the funk/jazz spectrum was every bit as alive as the music was. And this was sophistifunk at that. Yes rhythmically it actually did incorporate some of the mechanized hip-hop/soul rhythm. Yet the arrangement-with elegantly produced live strings,horns and bass synthesizers gave it that flavor of a fully formed futurist groove,modeled on the EWF/Roy Ayers musical attitude to lead the way into the new millennium.
A Celebratory Album For Incognito!
When I first discovered Incognito when my own mother purchased their 1999 album No Time Like the Future album in a budget bin at the now defunct Wild Rufus records on Coastal Maine,who could’ve guessed that by that time there would be a decade or more of catching up to do with them. There was no internet in our household at that time. So all there was to pay attention to was the music. Since then I’ve been able to learn what a journeyman musicians career Bluey has had since he first recorded as Incognito in the early 80’s and reformed the outfit a decade later. I call them that because its never been a totally formalized band. Many members have come in and out over the years. Yet since 1991 they’ve maintained a very consistent schedule of album releases,touring and appearances on other artists records. They represent not only a modern day jazz-funk band,but a similar spirit to the originals in the sense that much of the “acid jazz” genre,which encompasses that ethic,seems to revolve around them in some kind of way. And here we are,its 2014 and Incognito are celebrating 35 years as an entity. And this album represents part of that big celebration.
Normally I’d start such a review discussing the pluses. However,just to get it out of the way “I Couldn’t Love You More”,”Rapture”,”Day Or Night”,”Another Way”,”I See The Sun” and “The Hands Of Time” are not only highly repetitive of one another,but also of the sort of major/minor chorded horn based mid-tempo grooves that seem to comprise the bulk of much of Incognito’s albums since the beginning of the millennium. That being said,they are all wonderfully played and performed. “Hands Up If You Want To Be Loved” mixes it up with a rhythmic lilt and a bit of a slick gospel drenched juke joint type piano. “Hats (Makes Me Wanna Holler)”,with its 60’s era Crusaders/Ramsey Lewis/Young Holt uptempo hand clap-powered gospel soul/funk just cannot help but bring to mind a musical response to Pharrell Williams newly iconic hit Happy. “Silver Shadow” is my favorite song on the album,with its powerfully melodic chorus and glistening,high pitched dyno’d electric piano chords right out of the early 80’s sophistifunk school the band themselves came out of to begin with.
“Day Or Night” has a jazzy neo soul flavor very much in the vein of a Jill Scott or Erykah Badu. “Something ‘Bout July” gets into a Stevie Wonder style Latin soul/funk samba type groove while “Wind Sorceress” again provides that hyper melodic stop/start sophistifunk groove on a more instrumental end of things. “Never Known A Love Like This Before” is one of their always strong disco friendly uptempo dance/funk scorchers “Stop Running Away” is a cinematic type groove with Bluey singing in a captivating (at least to me) choked Curtis Mayfield style falsetto. The title song,presented in two parts,also continues in the cinematic funk vein. This would’ve been a near perfect album in every way since there is an overriding Chitlin’ Circuit style of chunky,gospel drenched funky soul-jazz about some of these songs that showcase a new instrumental direction with Incognito. Not to mention the uptempo Afro-Latin style percussion dance/funk numbers are among their best. Maysa,while an asset,is not present here however this I have no trouble with. The only thing that detracts from this album is something they’ve tended to do a lot: rely too much of minor chorded mid-tempo grooves that sound similar and make the album go on somewhat longer than it may need to. Still that doesn’t take away too much from the fact they are still here. And make it clear they have intentions on innovating their music and perhaps learning from their creative missteps in their bright looking future to come.
*Here is a link to the original review on Amazon.com. Please view and comment on site as well. Thank you!
Filed under Acid Jazz, Disco, Funk, Incognito, Jazz, Memphis Soul, Music Reviewing, Neo Soul, Pharrell Willaims, Soul, Stevie Wonder