From her debut to The Omnichord Real Book
The release of The Omnichord Real Book on June 16 arrives 30 years after Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, and bass player Meshell Ndegeocello issued her dazzling debut, Plantation Lullabies.
Unlike a number of her peers in jazz and pop–specifically hip-hop and neo soul–she hasn’t spent the past three decades segueing to a more easily digestible sound, pivoting to another career altogether or fading away completely. On the contrary, she’s been doing some of the finest work of her career in her 50s.
That isn’t unusual in jazz, where age confers status, but as Madonna can attest: it’s more unusual in pop. It helps when an artist doesn’t chase trends or adhere to a hyper-specific style. Amid the vicissitudes of a fickle music industry, Meshell Ndegeocello has always danced to the beat of her own bass line.
Born Michelle Johnson in West Berlin to a U.S. Army Band saxophonist father and an elder care worker mother, her family relocated to Washington D.C. when she was three. At 17, Meshell cast aside her “slave name” in favor of a Swahili surname, originally styled NdegéOcello (“free like a bird”), setting her apart from the crowd as much as a sartorial style that has only grown more androgynous with time. Following a short stint at DC’s Howard University, she’s lived in Brooklyn, Berkeley, Oakland, and Los Angeles.
AUDIO: Meshell Ndegeocello “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)”
With her instrumental prowess, Meshell could have become a full-time session player; instead, she signed with Madonna’s Maverick Records, firmly planting her feet in the pop camp from the start. Her debut featured the out-of-the-box hits “I’m Digging You – Like an Old Soul Record” and “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night),” introducing a versatile voice that split the difference between the hip-hop of Queen Latifah and the soul of Nina Simone, jazz-infused instrumentation, and a take-no-prisoners attitude. (In 2012, she released an entire album inspired by Simone, Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone.) Contributors included saxophone player Joshua Redman, co-producer/Scritti Politti multi-instrumentalist David Gamson and Gang Starr turntablist DJ Premier.
The next year, as a last-minute replacement for the embattled Tupac, she contributed bass and vocals to Madonna’s “I’d Rather Be Your Lover” from Bedtime Stories, followed two years later by a more polished follow-up, Peace Beyond Passion. It made an even bigger critical and commercial impact, spearheaded by the singles “Leviticus – Faggot” and a cover of Bill Withers’ “Who Is He and What Is He to You” (altogether, she’s released two albums of covers). She would record three more albums for the label before taking a break from pop to explore jazz in greater depth, finding its purest expression on 2005’s The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel with a stellar lineup of musicians, including clarinetist Don Byron, singer Cassandra Wilson and guitarist Oran Coltrane, youngest son of John and Alice Coltrane.
As these song titles suggest, Meshell stirred up controversy–now mostly dissipated–in the 1990s. Black and LGBTQ community members alternatively embraced and criticized her lyrics about race and sexuality. The line “The white man shall forever sleep with one eye open” from “Shoot’n Up and Gett’n High,” for instance, was seen as more of a radical statement than she intended. But the advantage of the experienced artist, like Meshell, over those who make their mark and then disappear: They have the opportunity to grow, to change, and to apologize, if warranted, for statements of the past, and her songwriting has become more nuanced and less inflammatory, even as her concerns remain the same.
Then again, when an artist expresses a desire for men and women alike, it can confuse and frustrate fans who insist that they pick a side, let alone a Black woman with the nerve to critique Black men. As Meshell told Robert Hilburn of The Los Angeles Times in 1996, “People see me as a heretic. Homophobia is rampant in the Black community, so I am a traitor to my race, and gay people don’t like me because I’m not gay enough.” Times have changed enough in the past 22-plus years that Janelle Monáe could describe herself as “pansexual” to Rolling Stone in 2018 without ruffling as many feathers.
When Meshell emerged in 1993, she was a single mother with a five-year-old son. For all the praise her debut generated, her demons caught up with her, and she became addicted to crack, attributing her dependence to over-work combined with the belief that she was undeserving after years spent feeling unappreciated. Love for her son inspired to get clean–and to stay that way. Since 2005, she has been married to Alison Riley, a creative director and brand strategist, with whom she is raising a second son.
For the most part, her association with Maverick proved beneficial, even as they prohibited her from working with Gamson, a close friend, on 1999’s Bitter, one of her biggest regrets. Though Paisley Park had also vied for her services, Warner Brothers pulled the plug on Prince’s label in 1994, whereas Maverick, also backed by Warner’s, outlived Meshell’s 10-year contract by seven years.
Over the course of five full-length recordings, the label granted her a fair amount of artistic freedom, though there was surely a little disappointment that she didn’t make more of an impression at commercial radio, a common experience for uncompromising, cross-genre artists.
Between 2005 and 2018, she recorded seven albums for five labels, three for Naive, a French independent specializing in pop, jazz, and classical. Her last release for Naive, 2018’s Ventriloquism, ranks among her finest. For newcomers, it might be the best place to start as she covers a broad range of meaningful material, mostly funk, soul, and hip-hop tracks from the 1980s, like a slow-burn take on Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows in April,” from Parade. The pink triangle on the front doesn’t necessarily reflect the contents, but it’s her clearest symbol to date of support for the LGBTQ community.
Meshell’s interest in dub and trip-hop came to the fore on 2003’s Comfort Woman, aligning her with the dub-infused art-pop albums Grace Jones recorded for Island in the 1980s and the hypnotic sounds emanating from Bristol in the 1990s by way of Massive Attack and Tricky, male acts that have worked frequently with female vocalists, mainly Martina Topley-Bird, Elizabeth Fraser and Tracey Thorn.
That expansive, unhurried vibe continues on the new record, her first for Blue Note. In a different era, Meshell might have released The Spirit Music Jamia on Blue Note and The Omnichord Real Book on a more pop-oriented label, except the former, under the leadership of Don Was, has brought more boundary-pushing artists into the fold. Meshell fits in with trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire and keyboard player Robert Glasper, both of whom appeared on Kendrick Lamar’s landmark album To Pimp a Butterfly (platinum-selling pop-jazz singer Norah Jones’s signing to Blue Note predates Was’s tenure).
Glasper also offered jazz interpretations of Nirvana, Radiohead and Tears for Fears on his Grammy Award-winning Black Radio trilogy, to which Meshell contributed “The Consequences of Jealousy” and Best R&B Song winner “Better than I Imagined,” a duet with Gabi Wilson, better known as H.E.R.
Omnichord marks a return to original material, much of it influenced by the passing of her Southern-born parents, Jacques and Helen, who inspired her love of jazz, even as her father cheated frequently and brazenly on her mother. It isn’t a melancholy or judgmental record, but rather a contemplative one marked by acoustic guitar, luxurious harp, keyboard washes, and intimate, whispered-in-your-ear vocals.
Though not overtly psychedelic, there’s an otherworldly feel to songs like “The 5th Dimension” and “Virgo,” on which she chants, “They’re calling me…from out of space…back to the stars.” (She’s cited both Sun Ra and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as influences.) Afrofuturism looks good on her. Collaborators include pianist Jason Moran, singer Joan Wasser, aka Joan as Police Woman, and label mate Akinmusire.
Beyond her 13 full-length recordings, Meshell has collaborated as a singer, rapper, and bass player with numerous artists, from Chaka Khan (1996’s Grammy-nominated “Never Miss the Water”) to the Rolling Stones (1997’s “Saint of Me”), and contributed to several film and television projects, notably Ava DuVernay’s well-loved OWN series Queen Sugar, which ended its seven-season run last year.
Of the many collaborations, she had her biggest hit in 1994 with Van Morrison’s “Wild Night,” a hip-hop-inflected John Mellencamp duet that remained in the Top 40 for 33 weeks, peaking at #3.
If it was all about hits, though, Meshell would have packed it in 21 years ago, when she last charted with sultry ballad “Earth” from Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape. Instead, it’s about expressing herself and connecting with listeners. As she told Devon Thomas of The Michigan Daily in 2002, “I don’t want to be a flash in the pan. It’s not who I am. I just do what I do–it’s really that simple. I can only hope for the best.”
From all appearances, Meshell Ndegeocello’s musical philosophy remains unchanged. Considering how often she considered walking away when things went awry, we’re lucky she’s stuck it out, continuing to follow the muse wherever it takes her–whether back to the recent past or into the distant heavens.
Meshell Ndegeocello is on tour through August. Find dates and venues here.
VIDEO: Meshell Ndegeocello “Clear Water”
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