There's comfort to spare in Ndegeocello's album

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

October 23, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison

They booed her. In June at the intimate Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, Meshell Ndegeocello gave a funky but strictly businesslike performance, the first of two that night. Several folks strolled in fashionably late, of course, and missed most of the 45-minute set. So when Meshell said "Good night" and dashed off the stage trailed by her young, small, multi-racial band, some audience members gave each other quizzical looks.

"She's done?" asked the stunned, theatrical-looking woman at my table. She was one of many who had come in at the tail end of the concert. When the house lights went up, and everybody realized that Meshell was not coming back out until the second show, the too-much-makeup woman and others in the joint started booing. I rolled my eyes and thought, These folks got absolutely no class.

But Meshell just laughs it off when I bring it up.

"We had a new band that night," she says, calling from her Brooklyn pad. "The reception was much better at the second show."

By now, the performer is used to mixed receptions. Either you dig Meshell or you don't. (But if you don't, then you must have some kind of sad aversion to real, hip, soul-encompassing music.) The artist garners much respect in the industry, and critics adore her work. Since dropping her earth-splitting debut, Plantation Lullabies, in 1993, the petite, openly bisexual, musically adventurous singer-songwriter-musician has been bubbling under the mainstream. Meshell's work is often complex, finely textured and accented with various flavors: groove-based jazz, Jimi Hendrix-inspired rock, Prince-ly sensuality. Her music is neither hooky nor conventional, which means radio won't touch her stuff.

And unfortunately, that probably won't change with Comfort Woman, Meshell's new album and fifth release for Madonna's Maverick label.

"This is just a love record," says the accomplished bassist, 34. "I'm hoping to put out some vibrations, some good vibrations, with this record."

Comfort Woman is only 40 minutes long. (Urban and pop releases usually run twice that these days.) But in the relatively short flight, you're taken to several musical heights. A tapestry of rock, jazz and dub, the CD prominently features Meshell's signature elixir vocals and fluid, rumbling bass lines. You fall into the record, cushioned by velvet grooves.

"I've been blessed to have love in my life, people that I care about and who love me," Meshell says. "I wanted to reflect that in the album."

The highlights include "Come Smoke My Herb" and "Love Song #2." But it's hard to dismantle the record. It's one of those rare sets in which each cut melts into another -- revealing sonic gems, precious lyrical jewels.

"I wanted it to sound warm," Meshell says, almost crooning the line. "I wanted it to feel good, something you can put on after work or just around the house, something nice and warm."

The title fits the luxurious music inside.

"In some cultures, a comfort woman is a prostitute," Meshell explains. "But to me, it means that we all need comfort physically, mentally, emotionally." She chuckles, "I know I need comfort all the time."

The album is a bit of a departure from last year's critically acclaimed Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape, a deeply political CD that blazed with hip-hop flourishes and spoken-word snippets from Claude McKay, Angela Davis, Gil Scott-Heron and other revolutionary black thinkers. In a way, Comfort Woman is like a continuation of Peace Beyond Passion, Meshell's 1996 masterpiece. But the new record is more seamless.

Although she doesn't sell albums by the truckload (and the limited marketing she receives certainly helps to keep that trend going), Meshell is always working -- playing gigs around the world, laying down nasty bass licks on other folks' records. In January, Verve will put out her first jazz album, which will feature Lalah Hathaway, Cassandra Wilson and others. When she's not on the road or in the studio, Meshell mothers 15-year-old Solomon.

"I don't take too much of this artistic stuff too seriously," she says matter-of-factly. "My son gets 100 percent of the whole scale. You have to make it all work. There are people out there working every day and raising children. So it's no different with me."

As for the serenity that flows through her music these days, Meshell says, "I feel a lot of peace in my life right now. I surround myself with calmness and love. I want to give that back. That's all."

And the lovers in the house applaud you.

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