Bass Jumping: Free-spirited four-string maestro strikes gold with inspiring
Meshell Ndegeocello just can’t be satisfied.
With the exception of Beck, no popular artist since Prince has jumped so freely from one genre to the next on each successive album. What sets Ndegeocello apart from those two tiny titans of experimental pop is that her genre-leaping is neither as calculated as Prince’s nor as sonically jarring as Beck’s. The ebb and flow of Ndegeocello’s music—from funky, ’70s-style soul and politically charged hip-hop to acoustic folk and orchestral rock—feels as natural as a breezy afternoon followed by an ominous storm and then naked sunshine.
Her 1993 debut, Plantation Lullabies, ushered in the neo-soul movement that gathered momentum with the emergence of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Maxwell and Jill Scott. But by the time neo-soul became a played-out trend, Ndegeocello was miles ahead of her followers. Her 1999 album Bitter was a beautifully cohesive set of angry but gentle rock and soul wrapped in strings, jazzy percussion, sizzling electronics and acoustic guitars; it also included the definitive cover of Hendrix’s sublime “May This Be Love.” Since then, Ndegeocello has jumped from the hard-hitting hip-hop of Cookie: The Anthropological Mix Tape to the stellar Comfort Woman, which combines the depth of Marvin Gaye with the adventurousness of Hendrix and the coolly sensual vocal style of Sade. Ndegeocello has tackled race and gender issues with intelligence and set a high musical bar with her deep, thumping, emotionally raw bass playing and smart collaborator choices.
Which leads us to Dance of the Infidel, one of those didn’t-see-it-coming projects that isn’t just from out of left field—it’s from completely outside the ballpark. This collection of free jazz is, for all intents and purposes, not even a Meshell Ndegeocello album. She doesn’t sing on it and didn’t even write any of the songs. She just booked the studio time, provided the spiritual guidance and proceeded to lay down some of the funkiest bass lines she could muster. The big stars here are the rainbow of master musicians such as saxophonist Oliver Lake, clarinet player Don Byron, harmonica player Gregoire Maret, pianist Federico González Peña, percussionist Mino Cinelu, vocalists Cassandra Wilson and Sabina Sciubba (of Brazilian Girls), and many others, some of whom have clocked time with Ndegeocello on earlier dates.
The CD stutters into play with “Mu-Min,” a short, spare shot of Lake and Byron harmonizing over Ndegeocello’s thumping bass, Michael Cain’s cool keyboards, Chris Dave’s understated drumming and electronic percussion programmed by Ndegeocello. The track sets the tone for a disc that runs from the clattering, wailing, Miles Davis-like rumble of the nearly 12-minute-long “Al-Falaq 113” to “The Chosen,” a warm, sensuous acoustic-guitar- and piano-driven ballad featuring the husky vocals of downtown New York chanteuse Wilson. One of the highlights of Dance is a Spanish/Middle Eastern-flavored track, “Luqman,” which features an unbelievable harmonica solo from Maret toward the end that sounds like a horn at one moment and accordion the next. This outstanding collection ends with a quiet turn on the gospel standard “When Did You Leave Heaven,” sung by Lalah Hathaway, daughter of the late soul man Donnie, to the simple, smoky accompaniment of piano, keyboards and drums.
Throughout, Ndegeocello’s presence is more than apparent, not just in the hypnotic bass lines, but in the overall chi. She’s truly one of popular music’s freest spirits.