Meshell Ndegeocello Decodes The Omnichord Real Book

October 03, 2023


Richard Scheinin

Staff writer Richard Scheinin spoke to Ndegeocello about her life, career, and game changing 2023 Blue Note album The Omnichord Real Book.

Meshell Ndegeocello

As a young musician in Washington, D.C., Meshell Ndegeocello played bass in go-go bands: solid funk, all night, six nights a week. That kind of experience adds up. She learned a lot about the way music fits together and works, and it helps explain her producer’s mindset — the way she combines and dovetails elements, creating groove-driven songs that are at once complicated and organic.

Her first album, Plantation Lullabies — released 30 years ago — helped point the way toward the neo-soul of D’Angelo, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu. But “neo-soul” is just a label and doesn’t convey Ndegeocello’s all-encompassing embrace of Black musical idioms: hip-hop, funk, gospel, reggae, fusion (think: Headhunters), or spiritual jazz. She rocks. She gets psychedelic. It all fits. She flows; as a bassist, she can transform the feeling of a groove with just one note. Ndegeocello, her adopted surname, is Swahili for “free like a bird,” she says, and you never know exactly where she’ll land. Plantation Lullabies ranges from outright rap to a hushed ostinato interlude that feels sacred, recalling vintage Pharoah Sanders.

“I was never pigeonholed to do one thing,” she explains, via Zoom from her studio in Brooklyn. She grew up imbibing Prince, Funkadelic, and Van Halen. Her father was a jazz saxophonist, but “he also played this weird piccolo thing in bluegrass bands; he’d switch around and that’s what I do.”

When Ndegeocello brings her band to SFJAZZ on October 27-29 (including a Fridays Live broadcast on the 27th), she will dip into her new album, The Omnichord Real Book, her first for Blue Note Records.

Like many of her recordings, this one is suite-like and soulful, a tapestry of colors and moods. But whereas her early albums oozed sex and conveyed a fight-the-power rage — about racism, homophobia, colonialism — this one lands a little differently. At age 55, Ndegeocello (born Michelle Lynn Johnson) says she finally has made a record that is “truly me.” The slow drip of sadness and pain that filtered through earlier records has given way to a brighter emotional palette. Even in its pensive moments, Omnichord tips toward uplift and the optimism of a seeker. A tune titled “Clear Water” advises listeners to “be at peace within the chaos.” Grooving like Sly Stone, it goes on like this: “Find peace in the now of creation. Find solace there. Get comfortable. Stay awhile.”

There’s an autobiographical element to the album. The “Real Book” refers to the anthology of lead sheets to jazz standards that every up-and-coming jazz musician contends with at some point; it’s a roadmap to basic repertory. Ndegeocello tells a story about her nerve-wracking introduction — at age 16 — to the Real Book. (Read on.) Jumping ahead several decades, she then tells a story about her introduction to the “Omnichord,” a synthesized autoharp with a built-in drum machine. When she was bored to tears during the pandemic, her friend Chris Bruce — guitarist, producer, and a member of her band — gave her an Omnichord. Ndegeocello started playing around with it and found that it got her juices flowing. Strumming her Omnichord, she began to compose a collection of songs and over time was inspired to create The Omnichord Real Book.

Produced by Josh Johnson, the young saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist, the album is peppered with great improvisers, mostly associated with the jazz world, but comfortable with Ndegeocello’s expansive approach. They include trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, harpist Brandee Younger, guitarist Jeff Parker (of Tortoise), drummer Mark Guiliana, and keyboardists Julius Rodriguez, Cory Henry, and Jason Moran. Ndegeocello has a long history of collaborations — with everyone from John Mellencamp to Robert Glasper — and these new ones are potent.

But in conversation, she focuses on three core members of her band who are on the album and will be with her in San Francisco: guitarist Bruce, keyboardist Jebin Bruni, and drummer Abe Rounds. “These three men have really changed my life,” she says. Having grown up in church, she likens them to a fellowship: “We compose together. We eat together, we travel together, we know each other’s moods.” When they step onstage, she says, “I just see it as this very special opportunity to be in fellowship with other people to bring a song to life.”

This interview with Ndegeocello has been edited for clarity and length.

RICHARD SCHEININ: When I was looking through the credits on your new album, I noticed that your publishing company is called “Revolutionary Jazz Giant.” What’s that about?

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: It’s from Mo’ Better Blues. In the film, the band’s manager was called “Giant.” And when I got my record deal, I think I’d watched it five or six times and that just sort of became my moniker. It’s also like a hip-hop thing. And it’s a Gil Scott-Heron thing, too — a reference to Gil, because he was a revolutionary jazz singer and poet. I used to see Gil play… He lived in Northwest D.C., and I think his music has a certain lope in the groove that perhaps D.C. musicians got from him. So all those ideas came together in my mind as “Revolutionary Jazz Giant.”

RS: Which record deal are you talking about?

MN: With Maverick Records.

RS: Oh, Madonna’s label, your first label, like 30 years ago.

MN: Right.

RS: That’s interesting. How would you describe your relationship to jazz? You’ve always drawn musicians from jazz circles. Even on your first album — Plantation Lullabies, which is definitely not a jazz album — you had people like Geri Allen and Joshua Redman.

MN: I just come from that. It’s just in my DNA. I grew up pretending or sometimes wanting to be the Headhunters. I don’t really see the music as different. I know these are tools used for marketing, creating these genres and giving them names. Really, it’s all Black American music. But I just have an affinity for musicians who use their instrument in a certain way. Like I have a huge admiration for Miles Davis and I was always interested in that period when he’d do something by Cyndi Lauper — he’d play “Time After Time,” but it was improvisational music.

I played in a lot of cover bands and what we did to keep the music interesting was just to have those improvisational moments. That’s always been part of the fabric of the music for me, and I think it’s always been in my soul. You can have a so-called stagnant ostinato beat going on forever and that’s just as interesting to me as it is to listen to Cecil Taylor. My mind is just trying to enjoy a good experience with music and I think that’s what I’m listening for. And maybe good is not the right word. It’s just a sincere offering from the artist that I’m looking for.

"Step Into the Projects" featuring Joshua Redman and Geri Allen

RS: Turn that around. How does that connect to your goal as a performer? What are you doing for the audience?

MN: I think in my younger days it was a lot of showboating, and I played with a lot of musicians where it was kind of like sport music. Playing live, I just had this feeling of “YAAAA!!!!!” — like I was going to destroy the stage. But now I just try to offer you something sincere and I try to play well and to trust in the song. If we have a starting point, if we have this roadmap, there’s a place we can go, together. And I know the music is also kinesthetic, emitting emotions and ideas.

RS: I’ve been watching videos of you in your 20s. You were a rock star.

MN: Ha! Thank you.

RS: Now you seem more — grounded might be the word. The music is still really intense. But when you sing on stage these days, you often sit. Why the change?

MN: Time. It’s time passing, experiences happening. I think when I was young — you have that bravado, and other people are sort of trying to push an idea of you that they have on to you. I think once I got into my late 30s, I started to trust my own navigational system. I’ve always been a real gentle spirit. I was just trying to tell my son about this — that that kind of hyped-up energy is mostly in insecure people. I don’t have that fear anymore. My own navigational system has allowed me to settle my own rebellious exterior that I was assumed to have.

RS: Your records are often very different — almost radically different in concept and style, from album to album. Yet all your records sound just like you — the moods, the underlying intensity and feeling. It’s kind of mysterious. A long time ago, I interviewed McCoy Tyner who talked about the “fingerprint” that every creative artist needs to find. How would you describe your own fingerprint?

MN: It’s only through hindsight that I can describe it, by looking back at the music and seeing the thread. I think my music is very much based in a groove. It’s my foundation and I use that as a vehicle to create my harmony and the melodic ideas are just usually very autodidactic attempts at self-expression.

And I think being a child in D.C. also contributes to my fingerprint, because D.C. is a very unique place for music. All the major acts come through there. Growing up, I could see Prince and I could see Van Halen. And there was a very strong jazz scene, as well, so I could see McCoy Tyner or I could see Allan Holdsworth. In fact, (bassist) Gary Grainger, who worked with Allan Holdsworth, lived a 20-minute drive from me. And then I would see Senegalese music, Ethiopian music; the whole African diaspora was there. And my father played in a big band. He played most of the inaugurations and they played every summer at the Jefferson Memorial. So I just think my fingerprint is from being surrounded by a lot of music and a lot of different styles of music.

RS: What big band was your dad in?

MN: The U.S. Army Blues. He was a good reader, so he was called to play on any sort of session where you had to read the chart. He also played for Doc Severinsen, and for Cat Anderson, and he was a jazz head. My dad played the Ford and Reagan inaugurations, so that’s what I grew up with.

RS: I spoke the other day to Jake Sherman, the keyboardist who plays on some of your projects, including the new album. And he told me that you’re very concerned with the healing function of music, and that you view your band as a community.

MN: It’s fellowship, the band as a fellowship. Because I was brought up in the church and they center the whole belief system on this one deity, or deities. But I find when you’re with other musicians, you’re in this unique fellowship where you all realize that you’ve all been given this gift. I get to be with four to seven people on stage and we’ve been given this gift to not just entertain, but to somehow interact with each other in a way that the people in the audience want to experience. It’s such a special thing — bringing songs to life, together. And I don’t take it for granted. I just wish it was something I would’ve known when I was younger.

I love playing with Jake. I just played with him a week ago. We played for the principals of New York City schools to demonstrate how important the arts are in the education of young people. We played two sets, just trying to be very present and listening to each other. And when I play with Jake, it really does slow down time for me, and I can hear every note and every chord to the point that the music is almost tactile.

RS: You were playing for a room full of school principals?

MN: Yes. I live in the greatest city for the arts and it’s really important for the educational system to really know how you can change a child’s life by putting an instrument into their hands. It’s that collective thing that is so unifying for people who experience it.

Playing music together is amazing and that’s why I made this record. Because Covid is so lonely. I was at home, scoring all these TV shows, and I was on Zoom with all these people. But really I was alone; I’m in this box. I need to get out of the box and be with other musicians. And when we’re together, it’s like a molecular shift in my body. We can look each other in the eye. That’s what led me to make the record.

RS: Tell me more about the pandemic and what you were trying to escape.

MN: I would score all day for like five to eight hours, and my friend Chris Bruce gave me an Omnichord for my birthday, and I just didn’t want to use a screen anymore. I wanted to experience music without that. I also had a shoulder injury that made me stop playing bass for a while, so I’d take breaks and I’d start playing my Omnichord. And I also have a button accordion, so I’d play that, and I started playing keyboards more. One thing led to another and it eventually became the record.

RS: A lot of the tunes on the record are collaboratively composed. Maybe you can tell me about the process of composing the tune “Perceptions,” which has this mesmerizing flow. You composed it with Chris Bruce and Jason Moran — and you performed it with Jason and keyboardist Jebin Bruni.

MN: I had some chords I had been messing around with, and that started me to have that melodic chant in my mind — the chant you hear on the track. But the chords were very stagnant, so I gave them to Chris and he created something that was very modal. Then Jebin added the synth pads to it. So we had a mode and all these colors and then I stripped everything away and that’s what I sent to Jason Moran — just my vocal and one of the pads that Jebin had left in. I said to Jason, “Send me something back,” and that’s what you hear on the album.

What I’ve learned from scoring is you just give the musician the right adjective to send them on the right trajectory: “Here’s my melody. Here’s my tonal center.” That’s what I did with Jason. You know, he changed my life when I met him. That lesson of “Don’t let your outside world distract you from your inner world” — the chant that’s on the track — is something I really learned when I was doing the Fats Waller project with Jason. (Ndegeocello is on Moran’s 2014 Blue Note album All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller.) He changed my life by reminding me that I’m a whole creative person, not just a musician on stage.

RS: The title of your new record harks back to something that happened to you as a teenager.

MN: Yes, I wanted to treat this record like a Real Book. Because when I was 16 and my father’s bass player didn’t show up for a gig, my dad handed me the Real Book and said, “Learn this, learn the basic harmonies.” That’s when I found out that you could have this road map that allows five or more people, who might be strangers, to share the harmonies and melodies and just go out and have an exquisite night of music. And that’s what I wanted for us with this record — to have these songs and take them to a new place. And Joshua is kind of like the band leader, so I put the songs in his hands.

RS: You’re talking about Josh Johnson who produced the album. Not everyone with your years of experience would outsource the production to a young guy like Joshua.

MN: After doing this for 30 years, humility is a blessing. Also, a lot of my heroes — I look at their later careers and it seems like a lot of them wouldn’t get out of the cockpit. And I saw Josh playing once a week with Jeff Parker when I was living in LA a while back, and he just blew my mind with his melodic abilities, and he’s also a pianist. He was Leon Bridges’ musical director. So I just knew he was the person that would understand these songs and could lead us as a band.

RS: There are 18 tracks on the album. Are you trying to create a new canon?

MN: That sounds lofty. I’m just starting to understand the possibilities. I’m just a musician realizing these are ways to connect to other people. Actually, I don’t think I believe in the canon. Now there are so many zeitgeists, and so many streams and so many circuits of music out there, and I’m just in my own little microcosm. So we’re just trying to play these songs, grow these songs, and I’ve already got new ideas. When we’re out playing live, maybe on Monday night we play it exactly as it is, but Tuesday night, let’s switch it up.

RS: What do you have planned for your week at SFJAZZ? For starters, will you play bass?

MN: I’ll play on a few things. Depends on how I feel. And I’ll sing, maybe play some keyboards, too.

RS: On the jazz album you made 20 years ago — The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel — you don’t play any bass at all. You handled the whole production. But you turned the bass role over to Matthew Garrison. Why?

MN: No, I play on a few tracks! And then there’s Matt on some of the others, and I have a keyboard bass player, Federico Gonzalez Pena, and Neal Evans plays some bass parts, too.

RS: You’re a great bass player.

MN: Thank you.

RS: Why don’t you always feel like playing bass?

MN: I think in my youth I was an interesting bass player. I love the instrument. It speaks to my soul. But I write most of the stuff; I feel like I’m the seed of the creation. There’s always something of me in the music. I don’t feel like I have a shtick; if I played the piano, I probably wouldn’t only play the piano. I’m not a virtuoso. I never wanted to be a virtuoso; I wanted to be a really good musician. I don’t think I have what it takes to be virtuosic, ripping off all those solos. I just wanted to be solid. When I’m dead, I’d like people to say about me: “Very strong musician, good in band situations, solid player.”

Also, I’m the singer, and I’m the so-called front person and when you do that, it’s different. When I play the bass, I don’t want to open my eyes. I just want to find myself totally locking in with the drummer, finding a nice bounce, paying attention to the harmonic foundations. When I’m out front, I have different responsibilities. I want to care for the audience. I find that’s easier when I put the instrument down.

RS: What’s your repertory going to be in San Francisco? Will you play new material? Tunes from the new album?

MN: We usually rehearse a set that is 10 percent old music and 90 percent new music. So yeah, from the new album and from the one that’s coming up next.

RS: How’d you wind up with Blue Note Records?

MN: I do a lot of work with Robert Glasper (the pianist, who used to record for Blue Note). And through Robert, I met Don Was (Blue Note’s president), and I really enjoy Don. We talk about art and all sorts of things. I never thought of being on the label, but then – well, really, the reason I’m on Blue Note is solely because of my partner, Alison Riley. She’s my secret weapon. I did this show inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which happened because Jason Moran got me the gig at Harlem Stage. It was a multi-media show, called Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin. And Alison said, “This is really interesting. You should make the music into an album.” So we recorded it. And because she’s also my manager, and because I know Robert Glasper and — it sounds corny, but they all just know each other. And Don heard it and signed it.

RS: He heard the James Baldwin album and signed you to Blue Note?

MN: Yes. And then we made The Omnichord Real Book, and that one came out first.

RS: When will the James Baldwin album come out?

MN: It comes out next August, on Baldwin’s birthday.

RS: I heard that you recently performed your first album, Plantation Lullabies, start to finish, for the first time in 25 or so years? How did that come about, and what was it like for you to revisit that old material?

MN: Don Was curates this festival in Boston where they choose one of your recordings and you play it in its entirety. I learned a lot about myself, doing that. I think I’ve grown as a person. I just don’t enjoy playing music that I wrote when I was 19 or 20. It was just interesting to do. It was like standing outside myself, playing those songs.

RS: Was it a challenge to relearn the music, technically – the notes?

MN: Not playing the notes, but saying the words. Or there were grooves that sat in a certain idea of groove and funk, and I was like, “Ha, I wouldn’t play that way now.” So we switched it around. And then there was the feeling of, “Do I want to recontextualize the timbres I’m using?” I decided to approach it in more of a Cory Henry way, like a strong rhythm and blues band that had these other layers. But the organ was the foundation – organ and drums are the centering elements.

RS: What songs gave you trouble, lyrically?

MN: When I sing “Boyfriend,” this is like the bravado of a 19 year-old.

RS: You’re talking about “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” — there’s a lot of attitude in that one.

MN: I just don’t really feel like that anymore — just the sexuality of the record. I’m 55 now — how do you perform that? It was interesting to try. What is the caricature I bring out of myself to have that presence? These things fascinate me now.

RS: I watched a YouTube video where Don Was interviews you about the new record. You told him that this is the first time you’ve ever made an album that truly feels like you — where you made it to satisfy yourself, and not some idea of what your parents expected from you. Your mom and dad died a few years ago: You’re saying that their expectations shadowed you throughout your whole life and career, until now?

MN: Oh yes, it’s very frightening. I think I held on to these ideas I had of them, and I held on to these ideas and criticisms and praise they had of me. It’s very freeing, for lack of a better word — liberating. I feel like a weight’s been lifted and quite a bit of sorrow. I was always trying to get my mother’s attention. I was always trying to get my father’s respect.

RS: That’s hard to hear.

MN: My mother never came to a show. And my father, he was something of a tyrant. I try not to badmouth my dad. But my father would always say this to me: “Whatever you do, be the best at it.” When he died, it took off some of that pressure to always be the best.

RS: So when you let go of that, what could you be?

MN: Be well. Be healthy.

RS: And that change started with this new record?

MN: I think I started to grow into that difference at the start of Ventriloquism. (Released in 2018, that album finds Ndegeocello covering tunes by Prince, Sade, George Clinton, Tina Turner, and others.) I really started to appreciate my band members — they’re like my friends and family. We compose together. We travel together, eat our meals together. These three men have really changed my life: Chris (Bruce), Jebin (Bruni), and Abraham (Rounds). We have a real strong knowing of one another to the point that even when anger arises, there’s such strong empathy and compassion. Abraham, he’s 33, and I met him when I was doing a residency at the Berklee College of Music. He was 21 and he is the most profound musician and his knowledge of music is deep. We just have so much mutual respect; he’s like my mentor. I just hope I can be as good as him some day. He plays every instrument. He’s the one who’s given me that language to think about my own role: “I’m not a drummer,” he says. “I’m a musician.”

Jebin comes from a different background. He played with Public Image Ltd. He played with Tears for Fears. But he also comes from musical theater. His father directed the first production of Godspell.

And Chris, he’s played with Seal, he’s played with Tom Waits, and he’s a phenomenal producer. He just produced Lizz Wright’s next recording. So I’m just surrounded by people I love, and who love me — if I never play another note.

RS: The new album has a tune called “Virgo” with lyrics that sound like something by Sun Ra: “They’re calling me back to the stars, deep outer space…” In that video interview with Don Was, you talk about the deep sadness you’ve felt for much of your life, and how you create stories to help dispel the sadness. Is this one of those stories? Is it an origin story that you created to redefine yourself?

MN: Yes. I’m a child of the Sun Ra cosmology. But also, the thing is that the Baldwin book gave me an understanding and empathy for my parents that I never had. It gave me an education, because I didn’t get this book until my late 40s. So the fact that my ancestors were enslaved and my parents were born before civil rights, and they had very difficult lives — they had lives that I can’t even imagine. It was hard. My father was in the military and watched others go up in rank when he could never go up in rank. And my mother only went to school through the fourth grade. I could never imagine their lives — even with what I’ve gone through as a person of color growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I couldn’t imagine it. So it gives me empathy.

And “Virgo” is related to that. I always imagine that my ancestors, who were enslaved, jumped off the boat and traveled across the ocean as ghosts, or as energy, to care for my ancestors, to care for my lineage — for my mother and father who were born from that, and that’s where I come from. It’s just like this story I tell myself.

Meshell Ndegeocello performs at SFJAZZ 10/27-29. Tickets and livestream info are available here.

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.

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