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For Ndegeocello, Bass Is 'Foundation and Groove'

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For Ndegeocello, Bass Is 'Foundation and Groove'

For Ndegeocello, Bass Is 'Foundation and Groove'

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Meshell Ndegedocello's husky voice is credited by some music journalists with jump-starting the neo-soul movement that's topped the pop charts over the past few years. She has released five critically acclaimed albums since 1993, recordings that feature socially provocative lyrics driven by a solid groove.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. MESHELL NDEGEDOCELLO (Singer): (Singing) You say that's your boyfriend. You say I'm out of line. Funny, he said I could call him up anytime. You can call me dog and say I ain't right, but if that's your boyfriend, he wasn't last night. I'm the kind of woman, I ...(unintelligible) almost anything to get what I want, I might play any little game. Call me what you like, but you know it's true. It's just jealous 'cause he wasn't with you. Don't mean no harm. I just like what I see and it ain't my fault this (unintelligible) me.

WERTHEIMER: In her latest CD, Meshell Ndegedocello wrote or co-wrote most of the tunes, but she doesn't sing. NPR's Felix Contreras explains.

FELIX CONTRERAS reporting:

Meshell Ndegedocello says she is first and foremost a bass player.

Ms. NDEGEDOCELLO: If you want foundation and groove, I'm the bass player for you. I don't want to solo, you know. I just like to groove, create a space and a bed for everyone else to do what they do. I'm very traditional, so to speak, as a bassist. I just lock it down and keep the chord changes clear. I'm the foundation. That's my style.

(Soundbite of instrumental music)

CONTRERAS: Meshell Ndegedocello was born Meshell Johnson 37 years ago. As a teen she chose a Swahili word for `free as a bird' for her last name. Her father, Jacques Johnson, played saxophone in military bands. The family moved from base to base in Europe and the US before settling in the Washington, DC, area. She says the constant change in surroundings helped keep her ears open.

Ms. NDEGEDOCELLO: There's all types of different cultures, all types of people, races and so I--you know, I never had those sort of limitations. And I definitely didn't have them musically, because I would listen to like AM radio as well. So I grew up, like I said, listening to everything. I could hear the Doobie Brothers and Stevie Wonder or I'd go see Rush and then, you know, I'd go to a Prince show. So I like everything.

CONTRERAS: Though she's certainly not interested in labeling the music she likes, some have called her new record jazz.

(Soundbite of music from "Dance of the Infidel")

Ms. NDEGEDOCELLO: I will call it jazz, and I'm excited to call it jazz.

CONTRERAS: John Murphy's a music journalist and a producer for betjazz.com, Black Entertainment Television's jazz Web site. He said Ndegedocello's new CD is just as provocative as her previous records, even without the words.

Mr. JOHN MURPHY (betjazz.com): I think with this record she focused more on composition. Like she's a great bass player, but even she said that she's not a virtuoso of the bass. She knows how to develop these great circular patterns that are very hypnotic and they evolve slowly and they work well in the context of the music.

(Soundbite of music from "Dance of the Infidel")

Mr. MURPHY: Some people really can't play that simple and be that musical at the same time, and that's a great gift that she has.

(Soundbite of music from "Dance of the Infidel")

CONTRERAS: The name of the new album is "Dance of the Infidel" and the group is called Spirit Music Jamia. Jamia is an ancient word meaning school or community; a nod to Ndegedocello's insistence that the group is a band of which she's just a part. The album title, she says, is a reference to a lifelong feeling of being an outsider. Ndegedocello has recently accepted Islam as her faith, and she says she's started studying Arabic. She says faith, language and music are all interrelated.

Ms. NDEGEDOCELLO: Arabic is a language where one word can mean several things. Some are tonal or some just have metaphoric differences. So when I realized if I play a melody, it's going to be different if you play it. It's going to feel different, sound different, be different, and that's pretty much how faith is, you know. My Islam is different than probably someone else's.

(Soundbite of music from "Dance of the Infidel")

CONTRERAS: Ndegedocello plans to record another pop vocal album in the fall, but she says this time she'll deal with the music industry from a much more enlightened perspective.

Ms. NDEGEDOCELLO: I feel such a--much more relaxed, much more confident and much more--I feel so grateful and much more satisfied. You know, life is a fleeting experience. I'll take none of this with me, none of these words that people say, nothing, or any of this music. And somewhere in that I'll have joy and I'll play really well and it'll be great. So I'm just settled and I'm cool with that.

CONTRERAS: Meshell Ndegedocello says music is like a prayer for her, a prayer rooted in a funky bass line.

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music from "Dance of the Infidel")

WERTHEIMER: Three of the mellow, unconventional songs from "Dance of the Infidel" are at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music from "Dance of the Infidel")

WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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