She’s an enigma. So enigmatic, in fact, that she has defied categorization. Refusing to be typecast in a stereotypical R&B singer role, she signed to Madonna’s label, dueted with John Mellencamp, played bass on a Fela Kuti tribute album, and opened up for the Rolling Stones, all the while amassing an increasingly eclectic body of work that, more often than not, pushed genre boundaries while emphasizing musical creativity.
So it makes perfect logic that the next evolutionary stage in Meshell Ndegeocello’s development would be her emergence as a jazz visionary. Her new record, Spirit Music Jamia: The Dance of the Infidel, isn’t a solo album, but rather a collaborative effort by a group of highly talented musicians, who eschew the hot-single-obsessed mentality of commercial R&B for an actual song cycle which revolves around the concept of spirit. From the opener, “Mu-Min,” featuring Don Byron and Oliver Lake, to the album’s centerpiece, “Papillion,” featuring Kenny Garrett and Frederico Gonzalez Pena, to “The Chosen,” featuring lead vocals by Cassandra Wilson, to the closer, “Heaven,” with Lalah Hathaway and Soulive’s Neal Evans, the album aims for — and achieves — a gestalt. Each successive song reinforces and adds to what has come before. The sum is greater than the whole of its fluid, and largely improvisational, parts.
“It’s all just music,” Ndegeocello says. “I don’t believe in boundaries.” The butterfly on the album cover, she says, symbolizes transformation in both a spiritual and physical sense, and the album’s more metaphysical direction may be due in part to her public embracing of Islam. Although she has been a practicing Muslim since 1996, she recently changed her legal name to Meshell Suhaila Bashir-Shakur (although the album credits Ndegeocello). And though she surely has some opinions on the subject, she’d rather talk about her new record than delve into the role of women in Islam. “I think everyone does their job with an intention,” she says. “That describes the intention of my group. To move your body, to feel.” Although Spirit Music Jamia is often abstract and meditative, there’s a sense of solid groove running through it. And Ndegeocello wants you to know that if you feel compelled to dance to it, you can.
Asked about the album’s subtitle, she explains that what the “dance of the infidel” means to her is, in a word, freedom: “I’ve tried to remain free. People want me to be an R&B artist,” she says. Ndegeocello decided to make a jazz album simply “because I can.” Plus, she’s been listening to the genre her whole life; her father was a jazz musician, so bebop is in her blood. She wrote the album, she says, with this particular group of musicians in mind, and didn’t mind taking a background role, ceding lead vocal duties and otherwise de-emphasizing her star persona, in favor of an ensemble approach.
When she isn’t getting all Ahmet Ertegun in the studio or all Jaco Pastorius onstage (it’s well known that she plays a mean bass), Ndegeocello is actually something of a homebody who enjoys shopping for kale and collard greens at the Berkeley Bowl; she has lived off and on in Berkeley for the past five or so years, she says. When it comes to live performance, however, Ndegeocello is all business. She promises listeners “a different set list every night,” so it might just behoove fans of improvisational, spiritual jazz to buy tickets for the entire six-show run at Yoshi’s in Jack London Square, which begins tonight (Wednesday) and runs through Friday. Info and tickets: Yoshis.com