Sovereign Souls: Meshell Ndegeocello on interpreting and re-experiencing Nina Simone

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Photo via facebook.com/officialmeshell
Photo via facebook.com/officialmeshell

In retrospect, it seems obvious to link Meshell Ndegeocello with Nina Simone: both are equally adept singers and instrumentalists who straddle the jazz and R&B worlds; both are unafraid to engage with political realities; both are strengthened artistically if undermined commercially by their fierce independence. Perhaps it’s that very independence, that sense that both Simone and Ndegeocello are iconoclastic islands unto themselves, that camouflaged any linkage between the two before the release of Pour Une Âme Souveraine (For a Soverign Soul): A Dedication to Nina Simone, Ndegeocello’s 2012 tribute album.

Ndegeocello will bring her homage to Simone to World Café Live at the Queen on Wednesday, backed by guitarist Chris Bruce, keyboardist Jebin Bruni, and drummer Abraham Rounds. While she’ll also perform a few songs from her own catalogue, most of the show will focus on material written by or associated with Simone.

“I’m trying to aid people in re-experiencing her music,” Ndegeocello says. “I want people to remember the amazing music and songwriting she was capable of.”

Pour Une Âme Souveraine certainly shines a spotlight on Simone’s artistry, but with Ndegeocello’s inimitable, uncategorizable approach intact. There’s never any attempt to recreate Simone’s sound; each song is given a distinctly modern reimagining, shot through with soul, funk, jazz, gospel, and rock touches. “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” opens, driven by Bruce’s knife-edged guitar riff and Ndegeocello’s hushed, repentant vocal. It continues with a country-gospel take on Simone’s take on Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” a funk rave-up “House of the Rising Sun,” a skulking “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” a dark, haunting “Four Women.”

A number of guests join in the celebration: Toshi Reagon on the bright, twangy “Real Real,” Sinead O’Connor on the swaying, hypnotic “Don’t Take All Night,” Lizz Wright on the deeply-felt blues of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” and Cody ChestnuTT revisiting “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The latter (written with Weldon Irvine) reflects Simone’s Civil Rights-era boldness, a determination to display her anger and frustration at a time when such outspokenness carried real consequences. “I didn’t live during the Civil Rights era,” Ndegeocello says, “so just to think that this was possible, that there was an artist out there participating in that way, is awe-inspiring. ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ should be in the same realm as certain Pete Seeger songs. It’s music to remind people of what was going on during that time.”

Despite the strong parallels between them, Ndegeocello didn’t discover Simone’s music until she was in her early 20s, shortly after she moved to New York City. She was in the passenger seat of a friend’s car when a Simone tape was slipped into the stereo. “I felt sorry that I didn’t have that earlier in my life,” Nedegeocello recalls. “I spent months researching and listening to as much of her music as I could. It was great to find such an amazing voice that didn’t sound like everyone else’s. She’s a huge inspiration.”

Born Michelle Johnson in 1968 in Germany, where her father, saxophonist Jacques Johnson, was serving in the army, Ndegeocello came of age on the Washington, D.C. go-go scene, notable for its fusion of jazz and funk approaches. She attended high school at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where she met jazz keyboardist Marc Cary, a fellow veteran of the go-go stage.

“We were like the mascots of the Duke Ellington School,” Cary says. “I knew Meshell when she played cello – I didn’t even know she was a singer. She’s always been one of the most brilliant and sincere people who I’ve ever met. She’s a very sensitive person and was looking for a way to express herself. I’m glad she found it.”

She adopted the name Meshell Ndegeocello at the age of 17, a youthful rebellion that she now shrugs at. (Her debut album, Plantation Lullabies, includes a Swahili translation of Ndegeocello as “free like a bird.”) Her versatility was evident from the beginning: around the same time as the release of her first record, she played bass on Drop Kick, the 1992 release by eclectic saxophonist Steve Coleman’s band Five Elements.

The single “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” garnered Ndegeocello a first glimpse of chart success and notoriety. Two years later she achieved her greatest success, covering Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” in a duet with John Mellencamp that was ubiquitous on radio and MTV that summer. But she seemed uninterested in chasing stardom and hit-making, crafting a body of work that has been unpredictable and, anathema to the minds of marketers, impossible to label.

Simone suffered a similar fate, beginning on a classical piano track derailed when she was turned down for a scholarship by Philly’s Curtis Institute of Music (possibly because of her race). She began playing clubs, melding jazz and pop influences and, later, a ferocious political approach, none of which endeared her to audiences or promoters in either field.

“I think she was seen as a pop singer and the jazz world, to its discredit, is snobbish at times,” Ndegeocello says. “And her personality kept her from achieving a lot of the notoriety that she’s deserving of.”

Simone was known as a contentious personality, even to her strongest defenders. In a performance I attended in Seattle a few years before her death in 2003, she rose from the piano after each song, expecting (and demanding) a standing ovation. Not realizing that the young woman perched at the front of the stage with her back to Simone was an usher, not a rude fan, she gave the woman a harsh thump to the back of the neck with a scepter she toted to the stage.

Ndegeocello never saw Simone perform or met her in person, a fact which she doesn’t regret. “I’m kind of happy she just lives in my mind in that way. Most people I know who’ve met her have had complicated exchanges.”

The bassist/singer’s tribute to Simone came about via a performance at the annual Women’s Jazz Festival at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, curated by Toshi Reagon. The concert was so well-received that she decided to record an album of Simone’s music.

“I tried to find songs I knew I could do justice to,” Ndegeocello says. I wanted to focus on things that show a greater sensitivity and wider range of genre. I feel like often she’s just seen as this soul jazz artist, but her upbringing in North Carolina and her classical background is definitely present in a lot of her songwriting.”

The fact that the songs then became so strongly imprinted with Ndegeocello’s personality, she says, came naturally. “I can’t really explain that. I just take the music and put it through my filter. I’ve tried to do that throughout my career. That’s what you do all the time as a jazz musician: try to stay fresh and take old songs and make them new.”

Ndeogeocello’s appearance in Wilmington will be one of her final shows to pay tribute to Simone. She hopes to see her new album released this spring, a collection of original tunes which includes Tindersticks drummer Earl Harvin and songwriting collaborations with Benji Hughes and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden. But she hopes that Pour Une Âme Souveraine will continue to direct new listeners to Simone’s estimable body of work.

“Her legacy is about great musicianship, great song styling, and a willingness to approach political issues,” Ndegeocello says. “She was able to transcend her circumstances and give us great gems of music that hopefully more people will become familiar with.”

Meshell Ndegeocello performs at World Cafe Live on Wednesday, January 29th at 8 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $80, more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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