ABOVE: Meshell Ndegeocello | PHOTO BY JASON RODGERS
BY MOIRA MCCORMICK | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
“How we gonna end all our suffering and strife? Forgiveness and love,” crooned Meshell Ndegeocello last monthat Afropunk Festival 2014, while the waning sun surrendered its hold on Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her particular take on Bob Marley’s “Fellowship” percolated dreamily on: “Forgiveness and love, forgiveness and love …
“I hope we all find that one day,” Ndegeocello added, significantly.
It was her first appearance at the 10-year-old Afropunk Fest, and the eminent bassist and singer-songwriter —who performs Wednesday at Thalia Hall in Pilsen —found the whole thing captivating.
“It’s a beautiful experience to be seeing so many people of color, and young people, extending the energy of New York,” Ndegeocello (nee Michelle Lynn Johnson) said in a recent phone call, adding that she also relished watching her bass-playing friend Mark Kelley, along with his band the Roots, back up a rare performance by reclusive headliner D’Angelo.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport
Ever since her 1993 debut album, “Plantation Lullabies,” the Berlin-born, Washington, D.C.-raised artist has been making waves among the cognoscenti. Ndegeocello’s arresting mélange of soul, jazz, hip-hop, rock, funk and reggae, shot through with her venturesome bass excursions and deep-mocha vocals, regularly prompts critical cartwheels; witness this AllMusic.com write-up of her fifth full-length studio release: “[I]f Meshell Ndegeocello’s ‘Comfort Woman’ isn’t regarded as one of the finest contemporary soul albums of 2003, then those who review music for a living had better get eardrum transplants … or pump gas.”
She’s also scored a handful of dance hits and film-soundtrack placements over the years, and her 1994 duet with John Mellencamp, a cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night,” reached No. 3on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart.
Ndegeocello and band are currently engaged in a brief U.S. tour, before taking an equally swift swing through Europe in November. “I have a 4-year old” —Atticus, the son she co-parents with spouse Alison Riley, whom she wed nine years ago in Toronto —“and I try to keep the tours tight, small,” Ndegeocello explained. “So I’m not away for long periods of time.”
The road jaunt now in progress supports her 11th studio album, the ravishing “Comet, Come to Me,” which came out in June. Listening to its 13 lush, strikingly variegated offerings —starting with the leadoff track (and sole cover), a crisp remake of Whodini’s vintage hip-hop commentary, “Friends” —is like unwrapping a baker’s dozen of unusually gratifying presents, at once surprising and just what you’ve always wanted.
“I think people know me for making conceptual recordings,” Ndegeocello observed; her previous album, “Pour une Ame Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone,” paid tribute to the nonpareil singer, songwriter and pianist who counts among Meshell’s most profound influences.
“But I don’t think people listen to anything as a collective experience anymore; they find the individual songs they like on iTunes or Spotify,” she pointed out. “So I set myself free” from the thematic straitjacket to create what became “Comet, Come to Me”: “I just wanted to make good songs.”
Ndegeocello ended up recording almost two dozen of them at the Los Angeles home studio of Pete Min, whom she describes as one of herfavorite engineers. “I worked on the Nina Simone project with him. And the studio is in a house among trees and mountains, with big open windows and a pool, and it’s just somewhere I like to go because it’s not so confined.”
Once 20 songs were completed, “I gave them to my three closest confidantes, and we had a playoff — I let them choose which would be on the recording. I just was like, ‘I’m gonna give you all these songs, and you tell me what are the strongest, what you gravitate to.’ And before I knew it I got a dropbox with everyone’s favorites. And I sequenced them. And that was the record.”
Two and a half months after “Comet, Come to Me” was released, another album dropped with Ndegeocello’s name on it as producer and bass player — blues-folk singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster’s “Promise of a Brand New Day.”
“Meshell had a way of helping me to feel confident and yet relaxed about writing more for ‘Promise,’” said Foster, winner of the Blues Foundation’s 2010 award for best contemporary blues female artist, “and also stretching beyond my comfort zone in the studio. She was a real treat to work with.”