Me'shell Ndegeocello - Pour une âme souveraine - A Dedication to Nina Simone

Me'shell Ndegeocello
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Words fail to describe how stunning an achievement Meshell Ndegeocello’s tribute album to Nina Simone really is, but I’ll give it my best shot. Easily the most accessible project of Ndegeocello’s since the days of Bitter and Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape, on Pour une âme souveraine - A Dedication to Nina Simone, Ndegeocello modernizes what heretofore has been thought to be impossible to modernize, at least not without a house beat or much purist derision. Here Nina Simone is paid homage in ways that refresh her for a generation that will never hear Simone’s original classics as much more than their grandmother’s music; depressing and angry songs at that. Ndegeocello reminds listeners old and new of the jazz of Simone’s material, how open it is to interpretation, how flexible and improvisational it is without losing the essence of what made Simone’s material great.

Words fail to describe how stunning an achievement Meshell Ndegeocello’s tribute album to Nina Simone really is, but I’ll give it my best shot. Easily the most accessible project of Ndegeocello’s since the days of Bitter and Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape, on Pour une âme souveraine - A Dedication to Nina Simone, Ndegeocello modernizes what heretofore has been thought to be impossible to modernize, at least not without a house beat or much purist derision. Here Nina Simone is paid homage in ways that refresh her for a generation that will never hear Simone’s original classics as much more than their grandmother’s music; depressing and angry songs at that. Ndegeocello reminds listeners old and new of the jazz of Simone’s material, how open it is to interpretation, how flexible and improvisational it is without losing the essence of what made Simone’s material great. By honoring Simone, as a producer and arranger Ndegeocello unintentionally also pays homage to her own skills as a great interpreter of American song.

There seems to be something of a Nina Simone revival in the air. In addition to an already controversial bio pic featuring the hotly contested Zoe Saldana in the title role, Simone’s material has frequently found its way into commercials and remix dance projects over the last several years. While it probably won’t culminate in a Cirque de Soleil show, it is inspiring to see the Civil Rights activist/advocate and singer/songwriter finally getting her due on this side of the Atlantic, instead of just in Europe, where Simone is considered something near a deity. Nonetheless, amongst the tributes and honors, listeners will be hard pressed to find anything akin to the care that Meshell Ndegeocello, drummer Deantoni Parks, guitarist Chris Bruce, and keyboardist Jebin Bruni have brought to this oft-considered sacred material.

Ndegeocello has clearly studied Simone’s playbook well enough to depart from the originals just enough to entice and excite while distilling the hearts of these songs, both the obscure and the famous. Her collaborators—Toshi Reagon, Lizz Wright, Cody ChestnuTT, Sinead O’Connor, Valerie June and Tracy Wannomae—equally walk the line between reverence and bravery, bringing themselves fully to Simone’s music but undeniably placing their unique stamps on it, just as Simone would, under Ndegeocello’s able production hand. Infusing contemporary production treatments usually reserved for country pop, electro-soul, and progressive R&B, with Simone’s blending of roots traditions, gospel, and near tribal beats, worksongs like “Be My Husband” and the haunting and rhythmic “House of the Rising Sun” go on to deliver a jumping jamboree of spirit, sound and movement. As the smoldering Ndegeocello’s duet partner on the acoustic guitar-driven country of “Real, Real” and the virtual field shouter on the call and response of “House of the Rising Son,” Toshi Reagon is a revelation. After one listen, you’ll want more collaboration between these two folksy music icons, so naturally do Reagon and Ndegeocello fit one another here. The doubling of vocals of Sinead O’Connor on “Don’t Take All Night” holds the plea of the song while introducing a pleasing strangeness once the exclusive province of Macy Gray. A solitary Lizz Wright straightforward delivery of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” accompanied by piano and both slide and electric guitar is a faithful reading, but the brocade elegance and malt chocolate richness of Wright’s tone makes it wholly hers. An acoustic guitar and woodwind supported Cody ChestnuTT replicates Wright’s effective minimalism on the project’s initial buzz cut, “To Be Young Gifted and Black,” with a hint of Stevie Wonder playing just beneath the rocker’s plaintive declaration.

Voice and percussion are at the forefront of what makes many of these re-imaginings work. Caramel thick are Meshell Ndegeocello’s hush tones pouring over a rock cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” the electronic yet ‘50s R&B take on “Either Way I Lose,” and a Grand Ol’ Opry spin on “Turn Me On.” A classic like “Feeling Good” is similar to the original only in melody and blues undertones; there’s no Michael Buble bombast here. Where the first was a bold declaration to the world, this one is a study in meditative self-inquiry, a tentative and considered conversation. Less ritual than the original, Ndegeocello’s more spectral “See Line Woman” with its flute riffs, astral sound effects, and rolling drums still dynamically invites a trancelike state of movement and spiritual elevation. Her “Suzanne” has the brightly ironic optimism and rambling rose of “Everybody’s Talking at Me,” and is perhaps the most traditional reading of Simone’s material. The drum undergirds Ndegeocello’s solo of “Four Women” with a weight always found in the lyric, but not always by the music—no such issues here, not with this masterful rhythm section.

Not to be outdone, the skillfully arranged ethereal and flirtatious backing harmonies of “Real, Real” and “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” are harmonic desserts so sumptuous they are soufflé delish and just as light to the touch. When harmonies are used at all, they appear as if recorded in a far off echo chamber and decoratively sprinkled about here and there on these tracks as flourish. The harmonic and doubling techniques throughout the album provides an artful seriousness and aural lightness to some of these works, but also smoothes out some of the less sultry voices on the project.

Some purist wanting a boring, straight-ahead reading of the Nina Simone songbook may scuff at the liberties taken on Pour une âme souveraine - A Dedication to Nina Simone. But, for my druthers, Meshell Ndegeocello’s Pour une âme souveraine (which means “for a sovereign soul”) does righteous justice to both women’s sovereign souls and their artistic legacies. Two sides of the same courageous social justice coin, Simone and Ndegeocello are equally elevated by this moving re-telling of Simone’s stories that never disrespects or intrudes, but always illuminates, invites, and embraces all those seeking nourishment for their mind and a hug for their soul. Highly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 

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