Protean bassist Meshell Ndegeocello entered the world as plain Michelle Johnson. Born in 1969, she got her introduction to music from her father, who played jazz saxophone. As a teenager, Johnson assumed her current moniker (pronounced n-day-gay-o-chello) — Swahili for “free as a bird.”
Most familiar to pop audiences for her duet with John Mellencamp on his 1994 “Wild Night” video, Ndegeocello has had a varied career, including two widely acclaimed albums. Plantation Lullabies (Maverick, 1993), which received three Grammy nods, was an exploration both of slavery and of her personal past: “Anywhere you feel trapped is a plantation” was the overriding meditation.
Peace Beyond Passion (Maverick, 1996) — another interesting exercise in jazz and folky funk — followed in due time. One more coup in those years: Ndegeocello became the first woman to receive Bass Guitar magazine’s Bassist of the Year award.
Bitter (Maverick, 1999) finds her moving toward ballads. Hailed as “the album of the year” by Newsweek, the disc was also praised by People and Rolling Stone, among other mainstream publications.
Baby Boomers — not to mention aging Gen X-ers — are tired of loud guitars and hip-hop beats, it seems. Ironically, Bitter feels safe, sweet … lyrically and vocally, the album has Tracy Chapman written all over it. Roberta Flack also comes to mind. One cut in particular — “Faithful” — finds Ndegeocello mimicking Aretha Franklin. And though Ms. Ndegeocello’s voice is dark like the Queen of Soul’s, it lacks most of the range. But Ronnie Drayton’s tasty guitar solo brings the song up to speed.
“Satisfy,” on the other hand, hints at raw sexuality, while a cover of the Jimi Hendrix nugget “May This Be Love” tries to stay faithful to the song’s psychedelic origins, while adding a stellar string arrangement and an eccentrically languid vocal delivery.
The album’s high point might be the futile-relationship song “Wasted Time,” which boasts discordant harmonies provided by the star and accompanying vocalist Joe Henry:
“Joe Henry is like Curtis Mayfield and Tom Waits mixed together,” Ndegeocello notes, adding,. “We did that harmony in one take.” She’s also quick to heap praise on the man responsible for the song’s seamless production values: “Craig Street is an eclectic black producer,” she says. “I see this album as a testament to him and others who refused to be pigeonholed by genre. It’s for Joan Armatrading, Ritchie Havens, Cree Summers, Tom Wilson, Jimi Hendrix and anyone who refused to just do booty songs.” (Street has also produced albums for k.d. lang and Cassandra Wilson.)
It’s worth noting that even Bitter’s most upbeat songs don’t go much beyond midtempo. And the bassist chooses to display none of her former range in this mystifying experiment (interestingly, the CD cover shows her in a pose that conceals her face). Some might hear poignancy and world-weariness here; others may find the pervasive lack of urgency an endurance test.
Of course, Ndegeocello has two gutsy previous albums from which to choose a repertoire for her upcoming show. At any rate, it should be interesting to see how the artist manages to serve up Bitter’s drowsy reflections to a hungry crowd.