Meshell Ndegeocello‘s 1993 debut recording, Plantation Lullabies, was hardly a jazz record. Still, the bassist, singer, and composer was connected to jazz from the start, featuring saxophonist Joshua Redman, guitarists David Fiucznski and “Wah-Wah Watson”, and pianist Geri Allen on a smashing first album. In a musical path that has included modern jazz (The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel, 2005) as well as pop covers (her last one, from 2018, Ventriloquism), Ndegeocello has covered lots of territory without sacrificing a clear sense of identity.
Fellow musicians revere that identity. Heck, even John Mellencamp had a hit duet with her. Many listeners may be more confused — she’s a virtuoso electric bassist, a rapper, a strong soul vocalist, and a musical activist.
The premiere jazz label, Blue Note, is her new home for The Omnichord Real Book. Many may know that the phrase “Real Book” alludes to the famous fake book that generations of jazz students have used to play standards by Charlie Parker, Cole Porter, and so on. So, it’s another “jazz” record? Is MeShell performing jazz standards this time out? After all, her guests include pianist Jason Moran, harpist Brandee Younger, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, vibes wizard Joel Ross, and drummer Mark Guiliana.
But that isn’t this recording. Like Ndegeocello’s best music, it is an exhilarating blend of modern R&B, hip-hop, and the soul/singer-songwriter tradition that includes Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers. Omnichord is the best set of Ndegeocello originals since her early run of albums between 1993 and 2003.
Many of the performances here have the funky depth of classic R&B or the DC Go-go music that Ndegeocello grew up playing. “Virgo” flows into “Burn Progression” on a connecting thread of eminently danceable syncopated groove, with keyboard bass on the former giving way to the rubbery electric bass of the leader on the latter. Though Younger’s harp spices up “Virgo” and Akinmusire plays a fluid self-harmonized lick (and then a deliciously atonal improvisation) on “Burn”, neither track gets too far away from moving your backside. The lyrics on “Virgo” blend a Sun Ra-esque meditation on outer space with mystical romantic yearning, and “Burn” lays it out more clearly: “You can’t pretend you don’t wanna shake / And watch it burn.” Sure, the phrase “things fall apart” may reflect current politics (and a reference to the classic Nigerian novel by Chinua Achebe). Still, this tune is a glorious piece of slippery funk.
In other places, Ndegeocello proves to be an irresistible genre blender. “Vuma” features lead vocals from South African singer Thandiswa Mazwai and includes vibes from Ross that reinforce the African rhythms we associate with the kalimba or thumb piano. But you know what makes it a banger first-class? Nedgeocello’s funked-out bass is everywhere at once. A couple of tunes that include guitarist Jeff Parker reflect the hybridity of Sly Stone. “Clear Water” uses funk/jazz guitar and loose syncopation from the rhythm section in combination with horn section colors. “ASR” is more slinky and impressionistic, hinting around the so-called “spiritual jazz” of the 1970s, but the same vibe is afoot: Ndegeocello has her musical soul located in the area where things mix freely.
It wouldn’t be an excellent and complete record without a ballad or two, and “Gatsby” is a quiet tune that features Cory Henry’s piano and layers of subtle background singing. “Call the Tune” is a pretty meditation (“Everything is under control,” she sings) that layers an alto saxophone on top of an acoustic guitar and humming synth and vocal lines.
The other relevant word in Omnichord Real Book is also slightly deceptive. The Omnichord is a Suzuki gizmo from the early 1980s that allows the player to play melodies and chords with buttons and a set of digital “strings” — somewhat like an acoustic auto-harp. It has percussive accompaniment, too. I might hear one in the background of “An Invitation”, but maybe not.
The idea, however, applies. The Omnichord was a strange little hybrid: a toy, an instrument, a drum machine, and a pseudo-guitar. It could stand on its own or back you up. This new recording from MeShell Ndegeocello has her in that role — making her guests sound better, sometimes dominating a track, and always creating a mood around the music that puts rhythm, harmony, and melody in delicious orbits. Even the tracks that don’t contain a vocal, like “Omnipuss”, are arresting. It puts a spell on you.