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    Monday, September 25, 2023

    For Meshell Ndegeocello, blurring musical lines has provided a clear path forward

    Meshell Ndegeocello was cleaning her parents’ home after their deaths when she came upon a book her father had given her.

    It was a “Real Book,” a compilation of chord charts for jazz standards. And it would push the funk and soul musician in a new creative direction.

    “I realized that the ‘Real Book’ was a beautiful thing,” Ndegeocello says over a Zoom call from her home studio in Brooklyn. “It allowed people to come together, gave them a road map so that everyone could play together if it had to happen quickly and you didn’t know one another.”

    In turn, Ndegeocello’s new album, “The Omnichord Real Book,” captures the cross-section of R&B, funk and jazz, and features a who’s who of like-minded musicians blurring the lines between genres. Though it’s marketed as jazz, due in part to its release on the cornerstone label Blue Note Records, the album coalesces the sounds Ndegeocello has tinkered with over her 30-year career.

    “Her legacy is just that: All things are possible,” says the noted guitarist and composer Jeff Parker, who plays on the album. “She’s somebody who’s just pure art, pure creativity and no expectations, just creating her own path and following it.”

    Ndegeocello (nee Michelle Lynn Johnson), 54, grew up playing bass in Washington, D.C., with her father, a saxophonist, and graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

    “One of my first gigs, my dad was like, ‘Bass player’s not showing up,’” she recalls. “‘We’re doing these tunes from the “Real Book.” Just familiarize yourself with the harmony.’ And that was my first lesson in music.”

    By the 1980s, she was playing bass in local go-go bands and had taken on the artist name “Ndegeocello,” a Swahili term meaning “free like a bird,” and changed the spelling of her first name.

    Her life experiences are reflected throughout the album, perhaps never more so than on the opening song, “Georgia Ave.” Partly influenced by the poverty Ndegeocello saw and the Black businesses she patronized along that D.C. street in the late 1970s, the track also speaks to the awakening she experienced as a child in the neighborhood.

    “I learned so much there,” she says. “You are going to experience things that will either feed you and excite you or shift you on your axis. I made a song that’s just to remind me to dream better.”

    Ndegeocello comes across as laid-back and jovial, talking leisurely through a perceived grin. She speaks at length about the connectivity of music, pointing to Miles Davis remaking Cyndi Lauper songs as its own form of jazz — or Black American music, as she likes to call it.

    “You can make it improvisational,” she says. “You can open it up, highly produce it and arrange it, play it note for note, and have musicians play it note for note. But it’s all just music.”

    “The Omnichord Real Book” is Ndegeocello’s attempt to further cement herself in the canon. And because it includes acclaimed — yet somewhat underrated — players such as Parker, Joel Ross, Brandee Younger, Jason Moran and Julius Rodriguez, it also highlights musicians that listeners should know more about. Ndegeocello is deferential that way.

    She lights up when talking about those collaborators, pointing out how it’s their record, too.

    “I wanted to be a songwriter, or a creator of shapes, so that those virtuosic musicians could find something within themselves within the music,” she says. “We were sharing, just like all great tomes, the ‘Real Book’ or any religious thing. It’s meant for you to come together.”

    Ndegeocello says she wanted the new album to be loose and improvisational, with songs written ahead of time yet still broad enough to flow in different directions. The song “Towers” reflects that approach. It’s her take on the composer Burt Bacharach, who, she says, “is responsible for several tunes that are in the Black consciousness.” Ndegeocello also credits her upbringing in Washington for the expansive tapestry of her sound.

    “It was a town where Van Halen came, the Ohio Players came, all kinds of music came,” she says. “I love Bad Brains. I love go-go music. I was surrounded by all genres of music and could play six nights a week in all kinds of bands. I feel like the new record is also that.”

    Producer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Johnson met Ndegeocello about seven or eight years ago in Los Angeles. They started collaborating on music, then reconnected in spring of last year to start working on “The Omnichord Real Book.”

    “Meshell has an incredibly vivid imagination when it comes to sound and feeling,” Johnson says. “Whether it’s on a record, or when you see her play, there’s this ability to connect and it’s undeniable. And it doesn’t take her time to get there. I think she’s really in touch with what can be done right now to lift this up or make people move. Every choice seems informed by a desire to make people feel deeply.”

    On such albums as “Plantation Lullabies,” “Peace Beyond Passion” and “Bitter,” Ndegeocello synthesized the breadth of Black music for a sound that didn’t quite land on one. At times political and leaning into the subgenres of quiet storm R&B and psych-rock, her music has helped her navigate various lanes without being labeled.

    “The Omnichord Real Book,” too, morphs and evolves, sometimes within one song. “The 5th Dimension,” with its dulcet upper-register piano chords and heartfelt vocals, falls somewhere among classical, ambient and jazz. “Hole in the Bucket” has vocal percussion indebted to hip-hop, yet the tenor of the song rings as gospel. “Vuma,” another standout, recalls the rolling bass line and buoyant drums of Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti.

    “She’s really a student of this stuff more than anything,” Parker says. “She’s very progressive, has an open mind and is always looking for new challenges. She has her ear to the ground all the time. She knows everything that’s happening.”

    But Ndegeocello’s aim isn’t that complex, she insists lightheartedly.

    “My mission statement at all times is to praise the creator of all things,” she says. “I think the gift I’ve been given to do that is through music. I’m at an age now where I just don’t have anything to lose.”

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