Bass in Hand, a Neo-Soul Diva Liberates Her Inner Jazz Child

Uncomfortable with her singer-songwriter frontwoman spotlight, Meshell Ndegeocello left her corporate label and kept her mouth shut for these largely improvised tracks. Three tunes showcase vocalists—Sabina (of the Brazilian Girls) on the bossa-tinged "Aquarium"; Cassandra Wilson on a ballad, "The Chosen"; and Lalah Hathaway for a straight-blues "Heaven"—but these are palate cleansers, the main course being instrumentals that play like a grooved suite.

Ndegeocello's blueprint (jam session constructed atop funk flow, concise melodies burst open) borrows from Miles Davis's later book and Weather Report's best chapter. As did Miles, Ndegeocello gathers masterly players who are composers, in potent combination.

On the brief "Mu-Min," saxophonist Oliver Lake, clarinetist Don Byron, and trombonist Joshua Roseman craft pungent harmonies. On "Al-Falaq 113," solos by trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and harmonica player Gregoire Maret form an extended narrative. None of this would mean as much outside the roomy rhythmic pockets sewn by bassists Ndegeocello and Matthew Garrison, keyboardist Michael Cain, and drummers Gene Lake, Chris Dave, and Jack DeJohnette. The aesthetic may shout '70s, but the up-front rim shots and electric-bass throbs speak of today. It's jazz values filtered through black pop's sound—what Miles was after 35 years ago.

 
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