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MeShell Ndegeocello shows off her range and experience on 'Omnichord'


This is FRESH AIR. Over the course of a more-than-30-year career, Meshell Ndegeocello has combined soul, funk, pop, hip-hop and jazz to create a unique body of work. Her new album is called "The Omnichord Real Book," and rock critic Ken Tucker says it serves as a kind of summation of Ndegeocello’s lifetime of making music thus far.


MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Ain't ever had nothing to make me feel secure. Ain't ever had no thing to make mе feel for sure that I'm loved - love, lovе, love. Nobody knows no thing. Nobody knows for sure what is real or true - real, real, real.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I've been shaken. I fear I've lost my way, sings Meshell Ndegeocello on that song, "Georgia Ave." It's music that illustrates doubt, insecurity, grief and a quiet terror of losing control of one's life. Meshell Ndegeocello’s new album, "The Omnichord Real Book," might have been unbearable if it spoke only of such things, and a lesser artist might change the subject quickly. Instead, Ndegeocello settles into these uncomfortable feelings and works through all the fears.


NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Remember the day it all came crashing down. The whole world changed. Who can you trust now? Things fall apart. There's no foolproof plan. You can be born woman. You gotta die like a man. Things fall apart. We all want someone to blame. But when you're gone, you're gone to stay. We live a lie day after day, and it hurts.

TUCKER: Ndegeocello began her career in the Washington, D.C. area, playing go-go music, the syncopated funk offshoot, as a member of Rare Essence and other bands. In the 1990s, she was one of the first artists signed to Madonna's Maverick Records, where she released her debut album, "Plantation Lullabies." It's widely considered one of the first examples of the neo soul movement. In the same decade, she hit No. 3 on the Billboard pop charts with a duet with John Mellencamp, a cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night," and later had a No. 1 dance chart hit with a cover of Bill Withers' "Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?" In 2016, her theater piece, "Can I Get A Witness? The Gospel Of James Baldwin" was performed in Manhattan. I list all of this to suggest that saying Ndegeocello has range is putting it mildly.


NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Feeling so good, good. What you going to do with me? I know how to go. I know how to flow. What's that? Good, good. Who's that? Hey, hey. I know what you see. I know what you need. Drop that attitude. Get in that gratitude. Big butt. That's for you. Back it up. That's for you.

TUCKER: Another song here is called "Gatsby," as in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." And Ndegeocello sings in the voice of Jay Gatsby from beyond the grave, wishing Daisy Buchanan were still by his side. It's typical of the strength of Ndegeocello's imagination on this collection that she took up Fitzgerald's book and found in it an emotional drama that speaks to her own concerns that she spun out into a scenario that occurs after the novel ends.


NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) I built a castle out of dreams and pretty scenes. I woke up and it was missing. It wasn't real. It wasn't real. I loved a woman who turned out to be an ideal thing. I woke up and she was different. Oh, wow. It wasn't real. It wasn't real. I've been saying things I don't believe.

TUCKER: "The Omnichord Real Book" is Ndegeocello's first album for Blue Note Records, the legendary jazz label. And many of the song structures here certainly partake of the jazz freedom to stretch out and explore melodic variations. The Omnichord of the album title is a small keyboard that Ndegeocello plays here and there in addition to her usual bass playing. But this collection is as much informed by funk and R&B as it is jazz. Listen to "Clear Water," for example, with its echo of Sly And The Family Stone.


SANFORD BIGGERS: Don't be fooled by the myth of control. Be at peace within the chaos and constant rebirth of the creative mind. To be in the now of creation. To push past one's knowledge and understanding. Into the chaos. Push past the predictability and comfort. Into the unknown.

TUCKER: As this album proceeds, Ndegeocello begins to find peace and solace in music and in approaching the people in her life with a newfound sense of openness and gratitude. Now in her 50s, she's making inquisitive, thorny, unclassifiable music that feels like something different that's just beginning.

MOSLEY: Ken Tucker reviewed Meshell Ndegeocello's new album called "The Omnichord Real Book."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jennifer Senior joins us to talk about her new piece about the practice of institutionalizing intellectually disabled relatives. Join us.

To keep up with what's on the show and to get highlights from our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.


MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.


NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Whirling through the atmosphere. Will you find the meaning? When you face the mighty nearer, want to look at what you see. Eyes of glass show fragile fear. You look around and shudder. Suffering in humble love. Don't leave me here. Where do we? Time disappearing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.