"Dance of the Infidel"
"Dance of the Infidel" may be the closest Meshell Ndegeocello ever gets to leading a big-band session -- or to conjuring and celebrating the fusion jazz legacy of Miles Davis.
The singer-songwriter and bassist is no stranger to collaboration, of course. In the past she's teamed with everyone from Chaka Khan and Prince to Joshua Redman and John Mellencamp. But on her latest release she isn't collaborating so much as serving as a catalyst for the Spirit Music Jamia ensemble. If this group isn't her personal dream team, then it must come awfully close considering the lineup: singers Cassandra Wilson and Lalah Hathaway; drummer Jack DeJohnette; reedmen Kenny Garrett, Don Byron and Oliver Lake; trumpeter Wallace Roney; guitarist Brandon Ross; and several other musicians who freely traverse genres.
The presence of former Davis band members and devoted disciples all but guarantees a familiar melding of modal jazz, funk and blues. What's surprising is that Ndegeocello manages to evoke the trumpeter's fusion work without sounding as if she's using a faded template. She wrote or co-wrote all the tunes, save for the vintage pop ballad "When Did You Leave Heaven," leaving lots of space for improvisation and interplay. The longer pieces, particularly "Al-Falaq 113" and "Luqman," are full of interesting twists and turns: Muted blues give way to brash bursts from the horns; loping bass lines and country twang are dramatically offset by darting runs, sophisticated harmonies and skittish rhythms. "Luqman," which features DeJohnette's restless prodding, a soaring, kite-like clarinet improvisation by Byron, and the seemingly ubiquitous chromatic harmonica player Gregoire Maret, is nearly 12 minutes long and never runs out of steam.
Ndegeocello doesn't sing on this largely instrumental session. Instead, Wilson, Hathaway and Sabina (of the Brazilian Girls) take turns at the microphone, with Wilson easily leaving the deepest and most soulful impression.
Ndegeocello and Flea help bolster the bottom end while making cameos on the new Redman Elastic Band release, "Momentum." Other guests include vibist Stefon Harris and guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel and Peter Bernstein. The CD marks the continuing, funk-inspired adventures of tenor saxophonist Redman, organist Sam Yahel and alternating drummers Brian Blade and Jeff Ballard.
The range of material this time around is indeed elastic, stretching wide enough to include tunes composed by Ornette Coleman (a cleverly deconstructed and syncopated version of "Lonely Woman"), Sheryl Crow (a slowly unfolding, blues-tinged "Riverwide") and Led Zeppelin (a freewheeling tenor-and-organ take on "The Crunge"). Redman thrives in these rhythmically kinetic settings and contributes several tunes, such as the aptly titled "Sweet Nasty," that help keep the funk burners stoked.
-- Mike Joyce
Appearing Tuesday at the 9:30 club.