Album of the Week // 29 March-2 April

Gilles Peterson has partnered with Jean-Paul ‘Bluey’ Maunick to reinvigorate the loose, protean energy of the early-80s Brit-funk scene. Long-time friends and collaborators, STR4TA sees them mine new musical possibilities out of that shared formative era.

It was through Maunick’s band, Incognito — one of the essential groups of an oft-overlooked, vital pocket of Black British musical history — that they first connected. On ‘Aspects’, he and Peterson revisit that important period and the spirit that guided it: self-taught, DIY vitality, and a raucous energy built on live performance.

Bringing a fresh slant to a sound first developed by groups like Atmosfear, Hi-Tension, Light of the World and Freeez — with Maunick, it should be noted, also a member of the latter two bands — it’s the first material that Maunick and Peterson have released together in over a decade. First appearing in October 2020 with single ‘Aspects’, the pair didn’t make public that they were behind the project; the limited edition 12” quickly sold out nonetheless, and the track received radio play from Moses Boyd (BBC Radio 6 Music), on KEXP and KCRW, and from Francois K (Worldwide FM), Trevor Jackson (NTS) and Colin Curtis (Worldwide FM).

Peterson and Maunick wanted to approach music-making from the starting point that led to those early records. This meant returning to the era where each of them first found their feet, a period which would shape their respective careers in the decades since. For Peterson, this has been as a taste-making record label boss, DJ, collector and broadcaster; for Maunick, this has been as a musician, bandleader and composer, touring and making the fabled achievement of scoring chart and radio hits in the USA.

“The idea of the project was to capture that raw, moment to moment sound,” Maunick says, drawing a contrast to the touches of refinement he and his peers have acquired in the years since. In its early days, the Brit-funk sound — and the London jazz-funk milieu it grew out of — was rooted in raucous live shows, rivalling those of the punk bands in that same period. Recalling his role in the process, Peterson says he was the one making sure things didn’t get too polished. “I was there at the back, telling them, no, leave it like that, cut it there, or just use that first take,” he says.

It’s an idea that had been in the works for a while, but which was encouraged by a surprising catalyst: the award acceptance speech by Tyler, the Creator at the 2020 Brit Awards, where he shouted out the influence of “British funk from the 80s”. It was an acknowledgement of the particular sound that Maunick and his peers had honed, where their US influences were re-oriented through their own circumstances. “Like everybody else who plays music, we tried to emulate our heroes,” Maunick says. “But we didn’t have the tools, we hadn’t studied music: were all playing by ear, and we were coming off bits and pieces that we liked off certain records.”

This record is guided by the same ethos. An array of musical touchpoints have fed into the album’s direct, no-frills entries: each track’s parts are cut back to the bare bone. In writing and recording the album, the pair of them would work together to strike upon the point of departure — more naive, less considered — that had produced that killer Brit-funk sound. Peterson would dig out records that showed particular flashes or moods as jumping off points, and Maunick would then work with collaborators to build new directions out of those prompts or suggestions.

In the case of title track, ‘Aspects’, this meant working with Richard Bull to program drums that were spare and suitably punchy for the track’s tight, dancefloor-oriented sound. Elsewhere, this meant working with long-time associates such as Peter Hinds and Randy Hope-Taylor, on entries such as ‘Steppers Crusade’, a track that is rooted firmly in the groove, while building a steady-climbing energy that lifts to euphoric highs.

On ‘Rhythm In Your Mind’, they showcase another masterclass in wrapping a track tightly around the groove, showing off the taut musicianship of Francis Hylton, on bass, and Matt Cooper, on keys and drums. And on ‘Vision 9’, they nod to Luiz Eça and sneak in a bit of fusion at the album’s close.

It’s the latest chapter in a story that started with Peterson interviewing Maunick in his parents’ garden shed, the first interview that the former had ever conducted. Later, they would reconnect to put out a string of celebrated Incognito albums on Peterson’s pioneering, now-defunct Talkin’ Loud imprint. Now, linking up once more, they unpick an under-appreciated flashpoint in a vital musical lineage, one which each of them has been instrumental in shaping.

You can listen to tracks from the album all this week on Morning Mari*, a 15 minute mini breakfast show every day from 9:00–9:15 GMT.

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