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Meshell Ndegeocello on How She Made One of the Best Albums of The Year

“The song is the spaceship; we just get in, and see where it takes us,” says Meshell Ndegeocello in the EPK for her new album, The Omnichord Real Book. Listening to the 18-track recording really does feel like boarding some kind of rocket ship, and journeying through time and space, to what has been preoccupying Ndegeocello’s mind and heart, to the music that has imprinted her imagination, and to new cosmic destinations

The Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and producer, has been making music for 30 years, constantly expanding, doing new things from project to project. “My first record I made at 22… So I have a lot of stored information to share… It’s a little bit of all of me, my travels, my life,” she says. After her 2018 album, Ventriloquism, which features soulful interpretations of pop and R&B songs from the 1980s and ‘90s, The Omnichord Real Book is a return to her original material, tapping into the broad spectrum of her musical roots and inspirations — from funk to soul, jazz to hip hop, reggae to rock.

It’s also her first album on the legendary Blue Note label, featuring some well-established heavyweights and rising stars in the jazz world like Jason Moran, Mark Guiliana, Ambrose Akinmusire, Joel Ross, Brandee Younger and Cory Henry. Produced by Josh Johnson, it also features longtime collaborators like Chris Bruce, who co-wrote some of the songs and plays guitar and bass, Deantoni Parks, who’s on the Drums, and Jebin Bruni on Keyboards and vocals.

The diverse collaborators on this album reveal the scope of Ndegeocello’s musical interests. Evoking the motherland, “Vuma,” co-written with Bruce, features South African vocalist and songwriter Thandiswa Mazwai, Ross on marimba and vibraphone, and Burnis Travis II on bass. It explores the collective and individual power of the human voice in speech, song and storytelling, and the significance of being true to one’s voice. Experimental guitarist Jeff Parker, who explores the realms of jazz, electronica, rock and improvisational music, makes essential contributions on “ASR” and “Clear Water.” The HawtPlates — vocalist family Justin Hicks, Jade Hicks, and Kenita Miller-Hicks — contribute soulful, layered vocals on the Prince-esque “The 5th Dimension” and the haunting “Hole In The Bucket.”

Crafting The Omnichord Real Book

Cover Illustration by Meshell Ndegeocello

Ndegeocello is known for her skill and creativity on the bass, as well as her unmistakable groove and ever-evolving songwriting. On this album she includes three bassists: Jake Sherman, Bruce, and Travis II. “I want to be a good composer,” Ndegeocello told Okayplayer. “I want to write the music that when people play it, they enjoy playing it. They find something in it that can allow them to continue on in a journey of self-expression. That’s the goal. And I feel blessed as a woman of color, a human of color, to be in that experience. Because when I play music… it’s the only time I feel genderless and raceless. I’m free from all the perceptions, all the stuff other people have put on me. I feel a complete togetherness.”

The music on these 18 tracks was created during the COVID-19 pandemic, which offered Ndegeocello plenty of time to reflect on her life experiences. She was spending long days composing scores for film (The Devil You Know) and TV shows (Black Mafia Family, Queen Sugar, and Our Kind of People) in front of computer screens, and so working on the album gave her an opportunity to step away from looking at music, to slow back down, and listen to her own thoughts and ideas. “I must admit it was a beautiful time for me,” she said. “I got to really sit and reacquaint myself with music.”

A journey into the music she grew up on

And what’s a Real Book? It’s a compilation containing musical notation sheets with the melody and chords for jazz standards, and other forms of music — the basics that a musician would need to play a tune. It’s a book Ndegeocello received from her father — Jacques Johnson, an army man and jazz saxophonist — at 16. And it’s a book that took on special meaning after Ndegeocello lost both her parents (her father in 2016, and her mother, Helen, in 2021). “Everything moved so quickly when my parents died. Changed my view of everything and myself in the blink of an eye,” Ndegeocello said. “As I sifted through the remains of their life together, I found my first ‘Real Book.’ I took their records, the ones I grew up hearing, learning, remembering.” She describes this new album as the result of a journey into the music she grew up with, and into her imagination, following this loss. It also reflects her desire to question the musical canon, and create songs that would be “launchpads of inspiration” for the musicians, bringing the listener in.

Closing Side A, “Clear Water” captivates instantly. Featuring a stunning, soulful guitar solo by Parker, the song touches on the importance of clarity — for the mind and body — and on “something we will all be desperate for one day: clear water.” It also touches on her emotional world:

“Pain colors everything I touch
I really, really, really love my pain so much
HURRRRRAH!!!!
(Love’s gonna get’cha, Love’s gonna get’cha)”

The journey of existence, pain and all, feeds and harbors Ndegeocello’s creative imagination. “My mother gifted me with her ache,” she said. “I carry the melancholy that defined her experience and, in turn, my experience of this thing called life calls me to disappear into my imagination and to hear the music.” The line that keeps recurring — “Just to make my way back” — suggested a return:

“Even in silence
I will not fear
I had to fly myself just to make my way back
Be not the tyrant, be not the spear
Just be the water”

Ndegeocello has a rare gift — the ability to channel the childhood, genetic and cosmic pain she carries, and all of her experience, into narratives and soundscapes that help her, and us, navigate this life. The sadness of not being able to establish a link with previous generations (“being a person of color, that’s kinda hard”) created in her imagination the story that the people she comes from jumped off the boat and ran across the ocean.

This is the story underlying the expansive, profound and consciousness-altering 8:38-minute “Virgo,” with Ndegeocello on key bass. It’s an epic piece, which appears again at the end of the album in another compelling rendition. It takes us on a journey through the galaxy and the chambers of the heart, with a trans-inducing repetitive structure that is, at the same time, always changing. Mixing different styles – soul, funk, electronica, punk, dub, new-wave rock and free jazz — it features Julius Rodriguez on spacey Farfisa organ, Brandy Younger’s glistening harp, and three drummers: Parks, Abe Rounds, and Andrya Ambro, contributing to the spellbinding feel of this track. The lyrics contextualize this journey: “They’re calling me / Back to the stars / Deep outer space.” These lines recur several times throughout the track, each time setting up a new phase of the journey, and a different groove.

Okayplayer caught up with Ndegeocello back home in Brooklyn, coming off a US tour in support of the album — she plays the Blue Note Jazz Festival in Napa this week, and is heading for Europe later this summer — to talk about the making of The Omnichord Real Book.

I wanted to open with the visual artwork you created for this project, which I found very thought-provoking. The cover art seems to relate to the idea that the album is “about the way we see old things in new ways.”

I think I’m just trying to take back my mind, and its imagination… And to me, that cover just shows other people this is visually sometimes what goes on in my mind. I believe my eyes are my weakest part. I believe I can see much better by listening. So that’s the front cover. Inside, they’re just my own personal totems and, you know, iconography…I mean, what do you feel those are to me? You’re helping me see what’s in there that I might not have caught, you know?

This being your first album on Blue Note, I read that you loved going through your parents’ record collection during your childhood and seeing the Blue Note logo, and that you’re moved to be on a label that is about self-expression, even though you stay away from the word “Jazz.” What’s wrapped up in this?

I’m realizing that just because you call it that, doesn’t mean that’s what it is. It could be a garbage pail. And then I turn it over, and it’s Tom drum. And the words I know change and shift and move on… Plus, I don’t have any connection to the legacy that a lot of people associate with jazz. But the part I do know is, I am a Black American musician.

I just feel blessed to be on the label because if you Wikipedia them, “Historically, Blue Note has principally been associated with the “hard bop” style of jazz (mixing bebop with other forms of music including soul, blues, rhythm and blues and gospel), but also recorded essential albums in the avant-garde and free styles of jazz.” I mean, they’re having some new Blue Note records coming out from the 1970s that were more so-called funk or soul or dance-oriented.

My dad was a jazz musician. I play black American music, and I think all of those things are in there. And I’m more a child of Miles Davis, who’s, like, “I can play this Cyndi Lauper tune, and make it a jazz tune. I’m the thing.” It’s all just music. We’re just trying to make some music that will make you feel good.

I want to ask about the title “ASR.” Is that a reference to ṣalāt al-ʿaṣr, the afternoon prayer?

Yes. But also, midday is when your thoughts kind of… you have to center yourself, you know? It was written by Amp Fiddler, Chris Bruce, Tony Allen, myself and Justin Hicks. And it’s kind of about the jazz. “I’m no longer reacting, I’m no longer distracted” [lyrics quoted from the song]. I’ve just gotta be forward thinking, and I don’t have to name everything…The Sura is, “By the passage of time, surely humanity is in grave loss, except for those who have faith in good, and urge each other to truth, and urge each other to be perseverant.” And that kind of was solid for me… And I’m just in the long lineage of my ancestors and people of color who’ve been human and have experienced things that I know we carry in our life… an extraordinary pain. And that’s what it is. And in the midday, I just try to not succumb to it.

Abstract photo of Meshell Ndegeocello

Photo Credit: Sharonne Cohen

I’m curious about the recurring line on the opening track, “Georgia Avenue,” — “Wake Up, Return, Balance, Align” – How do you find balance and alignment?

Many things. I like the isolation tank. I like to kettlebell, take long walks. I like to sleep. I really like my dream state. I like to cook, that always keeps me grounded. To listen to music. I love to sit in the tub. I could sit in the tub and read for hours. . . Watch my kids do things… I’m trying to be balanced as much as I can. But every morning I wake up and I return; I take it as another day to try.

A spiritual offering

The Omnichord Real Book reminds us that music can be everything – a mystical experience and a spiritual offering, a form of social and political expression, a gut punch, a personal and collective experience that is both sensual and poetic. This is one of those albums that keeps on giving the more you listen, unveiling more layers in the music, more revelations in the lyrics, more adventure into the landscape of Ndegeocello’s lush imagination, curious mind and tender heart, and more of a window into our own.

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Sharonne Cohen is a Montreal-based writer whose work has appeared in DownBeat, JazzTimes and Afropop Worldwide. You can find her work here.

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