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Meshell Ndegeocello opens the lid on her self-contained world

Meshell Ndegeocello
Courtesy of the artist
Meshell Ndegeocello

Realness is a root position in The Omnichord Real Book, Meshell Ndegeocello's expansive yet interior new album. That doesn't make it the default. "I've been saying things I don't believe," Ndegeocello sings softly at one point, in a rueful refrain. "I've been doing things that just ain't me." The song is "Gatsby," written and first recorded by Samora Pinderhughes, but it captures an essential idea that Ndegeocello seems keen to contemplate — that realness requires vigilance. It's a principled stance often mistaken for a state of being.

Over the 30 years since the release of her landmark debut, Ndegeocello has made truth-telling her business, along with a sound and style fed by many tributaries of Black music. The Omnichord Real Book is a coolly transfixing album — her first in five years, and her first as a leader for Blue Note. On some level it's the product of a jarring realignment, as Ndegeocello explains in the liner notes: "Everything moved so quickly when my parents died. Changed my view of everything and myself in the blink of an eye.

"As I sifted through the remains of their life together," she continues, "I found my first Real Book, the one my father gave me." Jazzfolk will recognize this as a nod to The Real Book, a volume of lead sheets that has circulated in various editions since the early 1970s; its title is an impish riff on the tradition of the fake book, designed to help musicians "fake" their way through a tune. Ndegeocello, whose father was an accomplished saxophonist in U.S. Army bands, tends to hold the word "jazz" at arm's length — yet there's a reason she turns to this touchstone now. The Real Book has recently come under scrutiny as an exclusionary canon, but its basic outlay of information presumably provided a way in for Ndegeocello, as for countless others.

/ Blue Note Records
Blue Note Records

Still, The Omnichord Real Book is a jazz album only to the extent that you need it to be. Even as she makes space for jazz artists like pianist Jason Moran and harpist Brandee Younger, Ndegeocello fashions this music in a language of her own. Along with her virtuoso electric bass playing, which grounds the music with a slithery gravity, she leans at times on the digital-primitive synth-rhythms of an Omnichord, the handheld, amoeba-shaped electronic instrument first made by Suzuki in the 1980s. Hear how she uses its strum plate to add an 8-bit shimmer to the Afrobeat groove of "Omnipuss," and you begin to understand how the instrument serves as a shield — a means of embracing jazz without taking on its baggage.

At the same time, the Omnichord is just another tool. On "An Invitation," which incorporates its retro drum programming, Ndegeocello makes a confession of sorts: "I fear I've lost my way." Elsewhere on the album, she voices her aspirations or gentle admonitions in more organic settings — with a model society of collaborators like Moran, whose solo piano reverie frames a drifting mantra: "Don't let the outside world / Distract you from your inner world."

Ndegeocello's music reliably imbibes from that inner world, creating a nearly self-contained universe. Her process on The Omnichord Real Book involves opening it up to some trusted interlopers, inviting them to alter the atmosphere. Along with frequent collaborators like guitarist Chris Bruce and drummer Deantoni Parks, the album features guests like Jeff Parker, whose electric guitar weaves through the shape-shifting journey of "ASR"; Ambrose Akinmusire, who provides both a multi-tracked trumpet chorus and an artfully smeary solo on "Burn Progression"; Joel Ross, who exercises judicious restraint with his vibraphone filigree on "Towers"; and Justin Hicks, Kenita Miller-Hicks and Jade Hicks, a family trio that performs as The HawtPlates, deepening a Prince-like glow on "The 5th Dimension."

At every turn, Ndegeocello makes it clear that the urge to turn inward can coexist with the impetus to explore — an idea that coalesces most clearly on "Virgo," an Afrofuturist anthem with eyes trained on the heavens, and sounds from Younger on harp and Julius Rodriguez on Farfisa organ. (The album closes with a reprise of this theme arranged by jazz elder Oliver Lake, and executed in part by saxophonist Josh Johnson and drummer Mark Guiliana.)

This legacy of searching Black invention, Ndegeocello seems to imply, is the center of her realness. There's freedom and agency in it, but also vulnerability and surrender. "Don't be fooled by the myth of control," intones the artist Sanford Biggers at the top of "Clear Water," as Ndegeocello's bass line kicks in. "Be at peace / Within the chaos / And constant rebirth of the creative mind." What ensues is a relaxed yet forward-tilt jam that calls to mind the laid-back side of George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic. (The funk is another thing that shan't be faked.)

The myth of control — it's an obviously useful reminder for Ndegeocello, who has always practiced a meticulous sort of shamanism in her music, giving each texture and pulse a sculptural touch. "Everything is under control," she sings on the album's tenderest song, "Call the Tune," against Chris Bruce's fingerpicked acoustic guitar, Hanna Benn's multi-tracked "ahhs," and Johnson's murmuring alto saxophone. She betrays no conflict as she repeats this line, keeping it real in an orb of meditative reassurance. She sounds as if she almost believes it.

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