Thanks to her muscular staccato tone and signature slides and trills, Meshell Ndegeocello’s dazzling 1993 debut, Plantation Lullabies, announced the arrival of a bold new bass badass. At 25, she had already developed her chops playing around Washington D.C. in the 1980s with bands like Rare Essence, Prophecy, and Little Benny & the Masters, absorbing go-go’s steady but syncopated feel. Throughout the ’90s, Meshell’s collaborations with Herbie Hancock, Chaka Khan, Madonna, Vanessa Williams, the Rolling Stones, the Indigo Girls, Scritti Politti, and others earned her a reputation as a fiercely funky bandleader, singer, performer, and bass idol.
Perhaps nowhere is Ndegeocello’s imprint more discernable than her interpretations of other artists’ material. A duet with John Mellencamp on a cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” went to #1 in 1994, and her version of Bill Withers’ “Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?” was a hit in 1996; over the years, she has put her stamp on classics associated with Marvin Gaye, the Soul Children, Leonard Cohen, U2, Fela Kuti, and Jimi Hendrix. More recently, Meshell released 2012’s Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone; played on and co-produced pianist Jason Moran’s All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller (2014); and wrote, conceived, and performed in Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin, a 2016 theater show. In a move presaged by her distinctive deconstructions of Ready For The World’s “Love You Down” and Whodini’s “Friends,” her new album, Ventriloquism, features Reagan-era radio gems dear to the nine-time Grammy nominee, who turned 20 in the summer of 1988.
On Ventriloquism, the arrangements are stylistically fresh but structurally faithful takes on the originals; Ndegeocello’s imaginative production is spacious, and in every case, lyrically illuminating. Free of era-appropriate synth and drum machine clutter, Lisa Lisa’s fears about the possible effects of a one-night stand are clear as day in “I Wonder If I Take You Home,” Al B. Sure’s already-smooth “Nite & Day” takes a Sade/Seal turn, Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” is recast as a slow burner that matches the song’s lyrical content, and both George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” and Force MD’s “Tender Love” get acoustic treatments a young Meshell might never have considered. The vaudevillian flourishes on Ralph Tresvant’s “Sensitivity,” which accentuate its distinctive chord progression, are a highlight.
The band—drummer Abe Rounds, guitarist Chris Bruce, and co-producer/keyboardist Jebin Bruni—helps Ndegeocello execute her genre-blurring vision with style and grace. Longtime collaborator Bruce (who has moonlighted on bass with Seal, Sheryl Crow, Jamie Lidell, and Jeff Beck, among others) adds atmosphere, texture, and sometimes, a sense of doom, as he does on Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun),” a far cry from Stanley Clarke’s smooth 1988 cover. Bruni’s sonic spices bring out the dreaminess of the System’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove,” and Rounds’ understated feel helps take “Sensitivity” and Sade’s “Smooth Operator” to entirely new places. Meshell leads the ensemble from the bass up while flaunting exemplary vocal production, conveying the essence of tracks like TLC’s “Waterfalls” and Prince’s poignant “Sometimes It Snows in April” with soulful brevity. The results are consistently interesting and frequently stunning.
Much more than a casual list of random covers, Ventriloquism is a deeply personal snapshot of a compelling era from the vantage point of this moment. “The year around the recording of this album was so disorienting and dispiriting for me personally and for so many people I know,” Meshell writes in the album’s promo materials. “I looked for a way to make something that was light while things around me were so dark, a musical place to go that reminded me of another, brighter time.”
What was your relationship to bass in the mid and late ’80s, the era from which most of these songs come?
I was playing. The bass was my ticket to get out of my situation.
Who was your favorite go-go bassist back in the day?
[Rare Essence co-founder] Michael “Funky Ned” Neal.
Was it important for you to reveal a different side of these songs?
Not exactly. I wasn’t trying to do anything specific, except give the songs a new breath, as I heard them. It was more about my connection to them than what tricks I could play or pull out of them.
I was curious to hear what you were going to do with LaMarquis Jefferson’s classic “Waterfalls” bass line.
One thing about covering a song is that some parts are so unique and have such a personality that you should never even mess with them or try to recreate them. That’s how I felt about that bass line. Only he should play it [see Complete Transcription, BP, Aug. ’16].
Chris Bruce’s guitar is a crucial element on the album. What do you look for in your bandmates?
Fellowship, innovation, and flexibility. But I also want to play with nice people. Chris Bruce is the nicest person there is.
It’s interesting to hear songs like “Atomic Dog” and “I Wonder If I Take You Home” from the vantage of the #MeToo movement.
Others, too, like “Sensitivity” and “Private Dancer.” It’s important to listen to things differently—it says a lot for the importance of context and cultural canvas.
How’d you come up with the idea to honor James Baldwin with Can I Get a Witness?
It just grew out of reading [Baldwin’s] The Fire Next Time. Speaking of cultural moments that transcend, that text is as relevant today as ever; I found his intelligence and insight so soothing—and so troubling at the same time—that it made me want to create a place to feel that together.
What was the process? Can you imagine doing more shows like Can I Get a Witness?
If the right thing inspired it. The process was pretty haphazard until I started working with Charlotte Brathwaite, who directed it. She really helped me see what it could be.
What bass did you use for that show?
A 1963 Fender Jazz.
How would you describe the sonic identities of your Reverend bass versus your other instruments?
The Reverend has more of a bite, but it still has a deep, round sound.
What other instruments are you using these days?
A ’54 Fender Rhodes [electric piano]. I love it. It has informed a lot of what I am hearing and playing recently.
What have you learned about group chemistry after all these years?
Everyone comes with their own energy, and I am just trying to find the right combination, as a human being and with [each person’s] sonic palette. I’m just trying to find the right colors and people I can talk to on the down days.
It’s been great to hear what different drummers bring out in you, from Gene Lake, Abe Laboriel Jr., and Charles Haynes to Sean Rickman, Chris Dave, Deantoni Parks, and now Abe Rounds.
I feel very lucky to have had the chance to play with them all. They’ve all taught me something, I can tell you that. I think Deantoni Parks is brilliant beyond brilliant. And Abe is my partner. He has been a true gift the last few years.
Is it true that you scored the film Queen Sugar with a team of collaborators?
I do everything with a team of collaborators—our band. That’s what being in a band is about. Abe, Chris, Jebin, and I worked together on that score like we do everything else we play together.
I noticed that you played at the Television Academy’s Words + Music event in 2017.
I feel outside of a lot of industry stuff, but I was glad to be there and happy to be invited.
Does anything about your bass-playing background translate to film composition?
I don’t think so. I think of myself as a musician and writer more than a bass player—they are very separate things, I guess.
What film composers, past and present, inspire you?
Milos Forman, Atticus Ross, Mica Levi, Jonny Greenwood, and Alexander Desplat. I also love the score for the first season of House of Cards, and Jeff Richmond—his scores are like free jazz.
In your playing and your music, there’s a sense of sparseness, as if you’re playing just what’s necessary.
I don’t need to do all that. I am averse to real showy playing; I think allowing for the space is as artful as the notes. I don’t know … all the notes don’t necessarily equal better playing or better feeling.
What kind of practice keeps you connected to bass these days?
Just trying to stay on it, not coast, and always be a better musician. I practice as much as I can, but I never feel like it’s enough. My body hurts after all these years!
In these times of strife and struggle, are you inspired to make music rooted in the harsh reality, music that highlights positive views, or a balance of both?
It depends on the day, really. I tend to dwell in the dark a lot of the time, but this record felt like a way to create something that felt good—although it was as much a response to strife and struggle, in the world and in my own life, as anything else. There are things to be positive about, but pushing positivity on people doesn’t always feel helpful.
You’ve given several clinics at Berklee. What kind of advice do you give bass students?
If you want to be a pop star, that’s a path to follow. If you want to be a follower of your musical muse, that’s a different path. Understand the difference.
What’s the next adventure you’re excited about?
I am ready for a little less adventure, to tell you the truth. I am finding new thrills in steadier rhythms.
Meshell Ndegeocello, Ventriloquism [2018, Naïve]
Basses Reverend signature basses, vintage Fender basses
Rigs Ampeg, Fender Twin
Effects Malekko, Boss, Morley, Voodoo Labs
Strings La Bella