Pop on the latest release by nu-soul hero Me’Shell Ndegeocello, and you get a shock—of pleasure and surprise. The opener, “Mu-Min”, starts with a synth-and-percussion figure that kicks into Chris Dave’s tight drumming. It sounds exactly like the start of a typical Me’Shell album. But just where you would expect to hear her enter with a languid, molasses vocal, we get a horn figure written by out-jazz saxophonist Oliver Lake, something that would be at home on an old World Saxophone Quartet album. Lake takes a short, acidic solo, then the figure returns. Less than two minutes (and no vocal) later, and notice has been served—this will not be a typical Me’Shell project.
Me’Shell Ndegeocello wants to entrance you and confound you. She wants to do her own thing, no doubt, but she wants to call you along for the ride. She’s a popular artist and an uncompromising auteur. And with her latest recording project, she is testing the limits of her fans’ interest while also testing the limits of what she is all about.
Hot on the heels of producing a mostly straight-ahead jazz record for saxophonist Ron Blake (Sonic Tonic), Me’Shell has produced her own jazz project. Unlike most jazz records, however, this one features very little of the leader’s own playing or singing. Rather, Me’Shell is the primary composer (writing or, mostly, co-writing seven of the eight tracks) and the ringleader, adding her distinctive electric bass to only three songs. For all that, there seems little doubt from the start that this is an album by Ms. Ndegeocello—with its slow bassline-driven grooves bubbling to a boil on so many tracks.
Still, the makeover on this record is more than on the surface. Among other things, Ms. Ndegeocello has converted to Islam and is credited on much of the disc as Meshell Suhaila Bashir-Shakur. Born as Michelle Johnson, Me’Shell is an artist fond of transformation. Her records have consistently moved across the spectrum of pop and soul music—from the funk of Plantation Lullabies to the hip-hop of Cookie to the gentler folk of Bitter. It always made total sense that she was among the first artists signed by the label founded by Madonna, the pop-queen of transformation.
That said, Dance of the Infidels has struck some long-time fans as a radical shift—from soul music to jazz, and not to the kind of groove-friendly jazz that R&B fans are used to hearing with the word “smooth” attached. Rather, this release is largely a vehicle for modern and, at times, avant-garde jazz solos from staples of the jazz vanguard such as Oliver Lake, Kenny Garrett, Wallace Roney, Don Byron, Jack DeJohnette, and Michael Cain. It is almost wholly a jazz record, though one built on slow-funk grooves. Though there are three vocal tracks (of eight total), the singing duties are left to others; Me’Shell never opens her mouth.
After the short opening track, things settle down into serious business. “Al-Falaq 113” begins with Gene Lake and Minu Cinelu dueting on drums and percussion, before Matthew Garrison (not Me’Shell) enters with a seductive five-note bass figure. The percussion grooves but never really stops shifting as Michael Cain (sideman for Ron Blake, Jack DeJohnette and others) opens your ears with acoustic piano. The melody is stated by a horn section of Garret’s soprano and Roney’s muted trumpet, with Gregoire Maret on harmonica. Cain solos freely, superimposing new harmonies at will as the bass stays put in its five-note groove. Synth sounds move in and out like night fog, then Roney enters on the open horn, sounding enough like ‘70s Miles Davis to make us realize that this project—this Me’Shell Ndegeocello album—is more the child of Bitches Brew than of anything by Marvin Gaye or George Clinton. As confirmation, Brandon Ross rises up on distorted guitar to push Roney higher. Neither exactly “fusion” nor straight-ahead jazz, Spirit Music is far from tame.
Even within this unpredictable zig of an album, there are unpredictable zags. “Aquarium” is a loungey mood meditation of feeling trapped in love, featuring Sabina Sciubba and Didi Gutman of The Brazilian Girls. Me’Shell makes the gig on bass, and Ron Blake fills out the sound on saxophones. It’s a delicate encounter and, frankly, remarkable for being a truly unlikely fusion of different worlds, bands and sensibilities.
“Papillion” is a setting for Kenny Garrett’s soprano sax, a spacey groove that features a remarkable bass solo (either by Me’Shell or Mr. Garrison) and the trademark shape-shifted keyboards of Me’Shell’s regular colleague, Federico Gonzalez Pena. It’s best, though, when Mr. Garrett is soloing toward the end—and for lack of more of that, it is probably the album’s weakest track.
“Dance of the Infidels” cures that problem entirely. Co-written by Me’Shell and Oran Coltrane (the second of John’s sons to make an impression on saxophone), this track achieves the project’s most balanced fusion of challenging jazz and the familiar Me’Shell style. Michael Cain moves freely on acoustic piano while synth, Rhodes, and organ color the interaction with Chris Dave’s sharp snare and cymbals. Me’Shell holds the bottom down on bass, particularly for the conversational and, ultimately, ecstatic alto solo by Kenny Garrett. On Miles Davis’s later albums and then on his own discs, Mr. Garrett has specialized in the kind of playing that starts quietly, then builds to screaming intensity—the kind of jazz playing that goes beyond distinctions of “in” and “out” because it is emotionally accessible.
The most intriguing track may be the feature for vocalist Cassandra Wilson—a singer who is both highly esteemed in pure jazz circles and extremely similar to Me’Shell in tone and vocal approach. “The Chosen” is the track we might have expected Me’Shell to assay herself, particularly given the frequent refrain (written by Me’Shell), “Come bear your soul to me”. Rather, this winds up as the most traditional track on the album, featuring only the acoustic keyboard and acoustic guitar with rhythm undergirding the impeccable interpretation of Ms. Wilson. With this music, Me’Shell stakes her claim both as a songwriter and as a wise producer, willing to let the best musicians for the job take over on their own.
Just as “Infidels” moves into “The Chosen” without a break, “Luqman” emerges from Mr. Cain’s piano into a flamenco-ish bass solo. These three tracks are plainly the centerpiece of Jamia, and “Luqman” is funky pleasure built on a 6/8 bass line and a banjoesque guitar lick by Brandon Ross. Jack DeJohnette is the drummer here, and as Oliver Lake erupts for the first improvised lick, it’s plain that this track will also be the most challenging of all. Mr. Roney solos on the open horn at a simmer, then Mr. Lake growls and trills his way into a scattershot of compelling abstraction. A new, boppish ensemble figure separates the alto solo from Don Byron’s statement on clarinet, where the reed player seems in constant dialogue with the team of percussionists working in tandem with Mr. DeJohnette. Finally, Mr. Maret gets another outing on chromatic harmonica, proving himself capable of playing with the big boys. The only disappointment here is that the tune fades out over the harmonica solo. What happened?
Dance of the Infidels ends on its quirkiest but most traditional note, “When Did You Leave Heaven?” A semi-standard that has been covered by Nancy Wilson, Charles Brown, Bob Dylan and (?!) Guy Lombardo, Me’Shell treats it as a straight gospel song to be sung by the more-than-capable Lalah Hathaway. Ms. Hathaway knocks the tune straight over the center field bleacher seats—singing it in the tradition but never oversinging it, then finishing it with some very Me’Shell-ish overdubbed vocal harmonies and a lovely, indeterminate openness.
This last song ends on the phase, “I want you to take me there.” And that is what lingers in me at the album’s close—a desire to follow Me’Shell Ndegeocello wherever she will lead me. From out-jazz to lounge-soul to ballad artistry to saxophonic ecstasy—and then home again to gospel music. What a ride.