Ndegeocello puts the groove front and center

Boston Globe, June 27, 2005

At this moment in her career, Meshell Ndegeocello is not a singer. She’s an expert electric bass player whose sense of groove and sonic construction sustains an all-star ensemble she calls Spirit Music Jamia, assembled from across the jazz, Latin, and R&B scenes. Her voice, however, is limited to introducing the band. Some at the Paradise on Saturday night were clearly unprepared for this, as the audience thinned during the set.

That was a shame, because taking place onstage was a demonstration of the power of groove-based music in the tradition of the great bands of Fela Kuti, Miles Davis, Roy Ayers, and Tito Puente, a collaboration of instinctive musicians working as peers. From Afrobeat to rumba, the richness of the music of the black Atlantic was on full display along with the unmatchable synthetic power of pure funk.

Along with Michael Cain on keyboards, a saxophone triple threat of Oliver Lake on alto, Kebbi Williams on tenor, and an animated Ron Blake on baritone and soprano assured melody and warmth, aggressive without overplaying. Chris Dave on drums and Gilmar Gomes on congas kept the proceedings grounded. And the breakbeats and disembodied voices that DJ Jahi Sundance distilled from his turntables made clear that this band has no fear of the future.

Clad in a “Star Wars” shirt and a kaffiyeh wrap over close-shorn hair, Ndegeocello was a vision from some alternate reality where paradox is a way of life. She directed from a rear corner, launching thick, pungent bass grooves into the ether. While watching her in communion with the band, it became clear that her move away from center stage is a daring and successful step toward creative freedom.

Earlier, saxophonist Joshua Redman opened the double bill with the Elastic Band, his electric quartet. The group lived up to its name with a solid set of supple grooves that showcased Redman’s open sound and his evident sense of propulsion and funk. Yet Redman, who has been somewhat out of the limelight since his rise to fame about a decade ago, rarely led his band past the familiar confines of the electric jam session.

On one fascinating song Redman finally traveled “out,” turning sax into ax with rich, dissonant, Hendrix-like riffs over a hypnotic, Eastern-inflected beat. It was a moment of real adventure; hopefully there is more where that came from.