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JAZZ REVIEW

Ndegeocello and friends: vitality amid a little chaos

June 29, 2005|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

It's probably not surprising that Meshell Ndegeocello has been drawn to jazz for her latest project. Despite her great versatility as an instrumentalist, singer, poet and more, the density of jazz, with its century-long roots in the shifting changes in African American culture, has always been present to some degree in her music.

Her latest recording, "Dance of the Infidel," features a new musical collective, Spirit Music Jamia, moving confidently through territory reminiscent of the Miles Davis bands of the '70s and Weather Report. But her performance Monday at the El Rey Theatre was more expansive, suggesting a correlation with bands of Charles Mingus.

Ndegeocello's gutsy bass lines combined with the powerful drumming of Chris Dave and Gilmar Gomes, the guitar of Oran Coltrane and the wildly eclectic keyboard work of Michael Cain to create a tsunami of rhythmic drive. Riding this turbulent wave, three saxophonists -- Ron Blake, Oliver Lake and Kebbi Williams -- ripped through interactive soloing and dark-textured ensemble passages.

On the down side, Ndegeocello's voice was rarely heard singing -- which was disappointing to those familiar with her vocal excursions -- although moments of poetry surfaced through the bottom-heavy sound mix.

Add to that the random quality of the set, in which last-minute discussions and instructions frequently occurred between numbers. But this, at least, was reminiscent of the similarly chaotic but ultimately musically productive exchanges that frequently took place in the Mingus bands.

Yes, there were moments when everything seemed on the verge of coming apart. But when it worked, Ndegeocello's Spirit Music Jamia had the feel of a band with a vital jazz future.

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