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Probably the biggest surprise of guitarist Pat Metheny's By Invitation series at the recently concluded 26th Montreal Jazz Festival was his late night performance with bassist/vocalist/composer Meshell Ndegeocello. Metheny played with a variety of artists during his four-day, five-show run, but only during his collaboration with Ndegeocello's band did he actually relinquish leadership. Standing off to the side of the stage, he let the diminutive Ndegeocello dominatenot only in terms of contributing the lion's share of the music, but also being the most commanding stage presence.
The majority of the music during Ndegeocello's set came from The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel, demonstrating something that has become increasingly apparent since she first appeared on the scene in '93. While she made her biggest leap into popular awareness through her funk-based amalgam of hip-hop and soul, jazz has also been a significant part of the equation. With The Spirit Music Jamia Ndegeocello delivers her most concerted effort yet, a nearly all-instrumental album that is more a vehicle for her increasingly astute writing than her playing. Ndegeocello, in fact, only plays bass on four of the album's eight tracksrelinquishing the more virtuosic demands to Matthew Garrison, although her own playing is never anything less than impressive. She enlists world music artist Sabina, jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, and urban singer Lalah Hathaway for the three tracks that feature vocals.
The all-star cast includes saxophonists Kenny Garrett and Oliver Lake, trumpeter Wallace Roney, clarinetist Don Byron, emerging harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret, pianist/keyboardist Michael Cain, drummers Jack DeJohnette, Gene Lake, and Chris Daveplus seemingly countless others. The recording has precedence in Miles' electric period, as well as Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi band, most notably in the horn-rich ambience of "Mu-Min and "Luqman. When Ndegeocello herself plays, her elliptical and unrelentingly insistent sense of groove recalls Michael Henderson, who was so effective in bringing a hypnotic vibe to Miles' '70s work.
While things can and do get heatedmost notably on "Al-Falaq 113, where Garrett delivers a characteristically powerful solo; and on the African-based groove of "Luqman, where Lake's inherent unpredictability is exploited to full advantagemuch of the album has a more relaxed, at times almost meditative vibe. "Acquarium, "Papillon, and the title track, which form the centre section of the album, border on being chill-out music, but they reflect far too much depth in both writing and soloing to be so easily dispensed with. While this is music to relax the spirit, it's also music that constantly engages the mind.
And while the stylistic purview of The Spirit Music Jamia is wide, the more advanced harmonic and improvisational aspects of it makes it unequivocally a jazz recordand consequently an explicit move in a new direction for Ndegeocello, who reveals greater breadth and depth with each passing year.