If you’re wondering whether Meshell Ndegeocello’s much-delayed jazz project is some sort of pop/jazz fusion, or is more of her self-styled alternative/soul/funk, or is actually ‘real’ jazz, the only answer I can give you, having heard it many, many times, is ‘yes.’ Thematically, it’s a schizophrenic recording: somber, contented, exuberant, reflective, depending on the song at hand. But the compositions are invariably intriguing, the sonics are near-perfect (the singers and players sounds like they’re in the room with you) and the musicians are top-shelf (Don Byron, both Gene and Oliver Lake, Jack De Johnette, Kenny Garrett, Cassandra Wilson and Lalah Hathaway among them). Given that the styles of music are so wildly different (slow-motion blues, hard-charging jazz, alternative pop) it’s hard to say how Meshell managed it, but there is a consistency to the disparity. Despite there being three ballad-oriented vocal tracks (none featuring Meshell’s voice, by the way) and five jazz-oriented instrumental tracks, the songs flow evenly one to the next. You’re both greatly and not at all surprised when the slow and sensual bassline of Cassandra Wilson’s “The Chosen” reassembles itself into the throbbing pulse of the extended ‘out’ jazz piece “Luqman.”
meshell 20.jpg 
“Luqman,” and all of Spirit Music’s jazz-oriented work, owes a debt to late-Sixties era Miles Davis—even a cursory listen makes that much obvious (and given the Miles alumnus present, should come as no surprise). But what separates Dance Of The Infidels from the hordes of post-Miles jazz/funk approximations is what Meshell does on the bottom end. I usually find jazz/funk hybridizations unlistenable, almost categorically, the reason being, the musicians (usually jazz-trained musicians) seem unaware that funk is rooted in the drum and the bass, in rhythm. If it doesn’t hit you in the gut, if you can’t turn it up and feel your bones vibrating through muscle and skin, guess what? It ain’t funk. So here, yes, the soloists draw me in, and yes, the compositional complexity keeps things interesting, but it’s the subterranean rumble of Meshell’s electric bass coupled with the hard-tuned thud of Chris Dave and Gene Lake’s drums that keeps me listening.

All of that said, my favorite tune from Dance Of The Infidel is both the most odd and least representative of the Spirit Music Jamia project as a whole.
“Aquarium,” which features lead vox by Sabina Scuibba of the off-kilter alternative pop band Brazilian Girls, is a blissed-out meditation on the fundamental nature of aquarium life…from the perspective of the fish. The metaphorical possibilities are endless: the fish as a kept woman; the aquarium as the limits of obsession; the aquarium as the busyness/emptiness of modern life…who can say, really? And that’s the strength of the song: both musically and lyrically, “Aquarium” is elastic enough to encourage mental floating, yet specific enough that the floating inevitably structures itself into something useful.

One other thing. The liner notes of this CD tell us that this music was recorded in March of 2003, but due to record label bullshit, it took two years—two frickin’ years!—for this music to see the light of day. By then, not surprisingly, both press and public greeted it with something of a shrug. It’s really too bad that at a time when black music lovers repeatedly bemoan the absence of intelligent yet accessible releases, an album that exemplifies the phrase ‘intelligent accessibility’ comes and goes with virtually no fanfare. I think it’s a crime for which there is only one solution: buy this record people!

—Mtume ya Salaam


            on tiny speakers in your car          

One of the numerous times I interviewed George Clinton, he told me about a mixing trick he used to do to make sure the funk was at the level it needed to be. When they did a mix, he would make a cassette copy—that’s right a cassette!, we’re talking about back in the Seventies—and run out to one of the cars in the parking lot and listen to the mix on miserable car speakers. If it sounded OK that way, he was sure that it was suitably funky. As Clinton noted, the majority of his fans were liable to hear the song on the car radio for the first time and he wanted to make their experience in the car a funky one.

Well, it’s the 21st century now and I’m on the road a lot. Except for a three week holiday stretch in New Orleans, I’ve probably spent more time in airports and in the air than I have in either New Orleans or Nashville. I do a lot of my listening on a computer. Though I have portable speakers packed away, it’s a pain to unpack them and set them up, if I’m not going to be in a place for at least three or four days. Earphones work, but though I use them, it’s usually because I don’t want to disturb others. I don’t particular enjoy listening to music that way. Right now I’m rocking a G4 Mac Powerbook and the speakers are adequate. I do most of my listening on tiny computer speakers.

All of which is to say, I’m decidedly underwhelmed by this Meshell selection even though I really, really dig Meshell. Maybe it’s the speakers.

—Kalamu ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Sunday, February 5th, 2006 at 12:59 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “SPIRIT MUSIC JAMIA / “Aquarium””

Ms. Berry Says:
February 5th, 2006 at 1:55 am

Aquarium is actually my favorite track on that CD and I would listen to it repeated at one point in my life. My other favorite track is the one with Lalah Hathaway on vocals.

youngblood Says:
February 6th, 2006 at 2:42 pm

it is rarely a good sign when the reviewer starts out by mentioning the artist who pioneered the gernre that your current record mimics. A testament to the mercurial prince of Blackness is that so many naked nymphs are shamelessly willing to expose the fact that they are wearing Miles’ dirty drawers. And I really hope that a record exec from marketing and not the artist is responsible for writing that this [recording] was “influenced by life, Miles Davis, Kool Herc, Carl Sagan and holy scripture.” Miles? Okay. Kool Herc? it s stretch, but i’ll give that a pass as well. but Carl Sagan? I trust that this is not the racist astronomer who could not get over the fact that African intelligence alone, and not space aliens, is responsible for pyramids and hieroglyphics.

Let’s get to the music, shall we? The good thing is that the rhythm section puts down tracks tighter than camel toe prints on a hot beach. The not so good thing is that Spirit Music Jamia has too many lifeguards showing off their physique and not enough willing to jump in the deep end to try and save some of these songs from drowing in shallow ambiguity. Mu-Min would be a great intro if the rest of the recording followed up. Kenny Garrett tries to resuscitate Al-Falaq 113 before realizing that it would be easier to just cremate it. Aquarium is a nice little sad song. Papillon (?) is track #4…I suppose. Dance of the Infidels translated must mean, “play the blues, Kenny.” On The Chosen, I don’t know what in hell Cassandra is singing about but as long as she’s gonna lay it on me like that, I’m tellin her whatever she wanna hear. I’m guessing track #7 is Luqman and I personally want to thank Oliver Lake for taking time out from his busy schedule to grace us with those, what, five ot six notes? Don Byron does a really convincing Alvin Batiste imitation. And oh, Jack DeJohnette is on the track as well. Heaven must be Lalah Hathaway’s cut. All in all I agree with Mtume; buy this record. Even if you just download the tracks you want – no worries as they will not take up much space in either one of your memories.

dick dondi Says:
February 8th, 2006 at 6:01 pm

I wrote a response to this recording around thanksgiving time. Youse have selected it to be run, misters. I am so thankful to have access to your site, what’s within. Peace+Blessingz.

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