Musically, Ventriloquism has the hallmarks of all of Ndegeocello’s work — lush and investigative, subversive and sublime. As always, she pays tribute to her diverse influences and in these cover songs, listeners hear them layered over one another. The reimagining deconstructs and comments on the narrow expectation of sound and structure for black artists and black music, while offering a musical refuge during these uncertain times. Ventriloquism is released 25 years after her GRAMMY®-nominated debut album Plantation Lullabies.
In awarding Ndegeocello the 2019 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts prize for music, Vijay Iyer called her, “a rare constellation in the artistic firmament, whose generosity of spirit defies the confines of genre and whose work dwells in both darkness and deliverance.”
Chuck Arnold in The New York Post said of Ventriloquism, “She arrived at the concept for the LP — on which she radically reinvents such classics as Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’ and George Clinton’s ‘Atomic Dog’ — during a difficult period about two and a half years ago when her father, saxophonist Jacques Johnson, passed away . . . this is a record about, and full of, transformation. These are well-loved songs that Ndegeocello loves a little bit more, singing them with a rich, warm tone (she’s never sounded better) and backed by a band who know how to anticipate every bob and weave she might make. It’s one of her best.”
Ndegeocello herself said, “I would go to my parents’ house, and my mother’s car radio only played the oldies station. So I just was listening to all the songs I grew up with. I’d be awash in memories . . . those are all the songs I would listen to at my parents’ house to make me feel better.”
She said a Billboard interview, “The covers idea was more so the result of a very intense year I experienced with the death of a parent and the dementia of another. And it was nice to just sit with tunes that you love and you know in and out in an emotional way. It was cathartic for me to try to give them another life, these songs.”
Charlotte Richardson Andrews said in The Guardian said, “These are bold offerings – creative, unpredictable and rich with Ndegeocello’s sensual contralto. There is intention here, a subtle, transformative magic . . . there’s no denying the originality on offer here, from this rightly revered music game outlier.”
Brad Nelson of Pitchfork said, “A cover is an act of scholarship, an act of criticism, an act of intimacy. An act of love. Tackling a range of R&B radio hits from the 1980s and 1990s, Meshell Ndegeocello treats the practice of covering another’s songs as an act of intimacy and empathy. She doesn’t perform these songs as much as she renovates them from surface to center, peeling away wallpaper, pushing furniture around, crumpling and discarding any unnecessary dimensional space until she figures out what kind of room the song is.”
Thomas Inskeep in Spin said, “Prince’s ‘Sometimes It Snows in April’ is the centerpiece of the album, a fitting tribute as we approach the second anniversary of his death. Ndegeocello’s take is . . . hushed, almost religious — you know the line in ‘Maria,’ from West Side Story, ‘Say it soft, and it’s almost like praying’? That’s the impact here: it sounds like a prayer to and for Prince.”
Ventriloquism is a place, like its process, to take refuge from one storm too many. “The year around the recording of this album was so disorienting and dispiriting for me personally and for so many people I know and spoke to all the time,” she said. “I looked for a way to make something that was light while things around me were so dark, a musical place to go that reminded me of another, brighter time.”
“Early on in my career, I was told to make the same kind of album again and again, and when I didn’t do that, I lost support. There isn’t much diversity within genres, which are ghettoizing themselves, and I liked the idea of turning hits I loved into something even just a little less familiar or formulaic. It was an opportunity to pay a new kind of tribute.”
This event is part of IGNITE @ the FORD!, a series comprised of world-renowned contemporary artists whose work is thought provoking and reflects the world in which we live. Proceeds from IGNITE @ the FORD! events benefit the Ford Theatre Foundation. Tickets are available online at FordTheatres.org and by phone (323) 461-3673. Ford Theatres is located at 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood, CA 90068.
From a Washington Post interview by Geoffrey Himes, “Ndegeocello chose 11 songs for Ventriloquism from between 1982 and 1995 . . . from giants of the period as well as such half-forgotten acts as the System (‘Don’t Disturb This Groove’), Al B. Sure! (‘Nite and Day’) and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam (‘I Wonder If I Take You Home’). Three were written by the team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, members of the Time, the Minneapolis R&B band first assembled by Prince. Jam and Lewis later left to write hits for Janet Jackson, Ralph Tresvant and the Force MDs.”
Ndegeocello said, “Jimmy and Terry wrote songs so good that you could take off the vocals and the top line and they’d still be killing. They had a different kind of male energy than Prince. They were great at group-oriented collective thought, while Prince was great at individualism. I carried over that collective spirit to recording the album with my band.” Himes said that she and her collaborators were in the studio with “the time to work things out, which is very different than me sitting alone at home, trying to piece together arrangements on a computer. This is the sound of my band as it’s developed over the years.”
Ventriloquism was recorded in Los Angeles with the familiar family of partners and players that Meshell has worked with for years. Chris Bruce plays guitar, Abraham Rounds is on drums, Jebin Bruni co-produced the album and plays keys. S. Husky Huskolds engineered while Pete Min mixed and mastered. Lasting and collaborative relationships with her fellow musicians are among the most important parts of music making for Meshell, prompting her to say on more than one occasion: “Meshell Ndegeocello is a band.”
As always, she pays tribute to her diverse influences and in these eleven covers, we hear them layered over one another. Ndegeocello filters “Tender Love” through a folky, Californian filter and brings vaudevillian accents to “Sensitivity.” She recreates “Smooth Operator” and turns “Private Dancer” into a sultry waltz. The reimagining affords not just a new musical experience but also a comment on the narrow expectations of sounds and structures for black artists and black music.
Some tracks were selected for their reflections: The album opens with “I Wonder If I Take You Home”, which marked the early influence of Prince and hip-hop on commercial pop, and was a reference for Ndegeocello’s own “If That’s Your Boyfriend.” Constantly asked to be “funky,” Ndegeocello includes “Atomic Dog” as a reminder that the heart of funk is ineffable and irreverent, not just acted in showy flourishes, slaps or noodling. Other songs offered an outlet for plain emotional truths: “Waterfalls” was stripped down and delivered as an honest and needed personal lament. “Sometimes It Snows In April” has an extended intro, an accidental result of the band’s desire to delay the new and inevitable sadness of the song. “Funny How Time Flies” approaches sarcasm in its ominous and lonely sounds, exemplifying how these times – personally for Ndegeocello, politically for many – are neither flying nor fun. A portion of the profits from the album will be donated to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Allmusic.com Artist Biography by Greg Prato
Although Meshell Ndegeocello scored a few hits early in her career, the bassist, singer and songwriter later opted to concentrate on more challenging material by exploring the politics of race and sex, among other topics. From her 1993 Maverick label debut through her releases of the 2010s for Naïve, she built a discography of recordings that defied classification through progressive mixtures of jazz, R&B, hip-hop and rock. Initially held in regard primarily for her bass playing and bold lyrics, her songwriting, which often examined dark interpersonal issues, was just as exceptional.
Michelle Lynn Johnson, born on August 29, 1968, spent the first few years of her life in Germany. Her father was both a military man and a jazz saxophonist. She relocated with her family to Virginia in the early ’70s. As a youngster, Johnson developed an interest in music; during her teenage years, she began to play regularly in the clubs of Washington, D.C., but eventually settled down in New York City after a stint of studying music at Howard University.
By this point, she was going by Me’Shell NdegéOcello — her adopted last name Swahili for “free like a bird.” After auditioning for several bands, including Living Colour, NdegéOcello struck out on her own and often performed solo with just a bass, drum machine and keyboard. In the early ’90s, she was one of the first artists signed to Madonna’s Warner-affiliated Maverick label.
Ndegeocello’s debut album, 1993’s Plantation Lullabies, was produced with David Gamson, as well as with André Betts and Bob Power, and involved input from a wide range of musicians, including DJ Premier, Joshua Redman, Bill Summers, Wah-Wah Watson and David Fiuczynski. An impressive first album, it spawned the hit “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” and received three GRAMMY® nominations. A duet with John Mellencamp on a cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night,” released a year later, brought her more mainstream attention; it peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100.
Almost three years passed between the release of NdegéOcello’s first and second albums, but during the wait, she collaborated with Chaka Khan on the track “Never Miss the Water” and she appeared on movie soundtracks (White Man’s Burden, Money Talks) and on such multi-artist releases as Ain’t Nuthin’ But a She Thing and Lilith Fair, Vol. 3. Peace Beyond Passion finally saw release in 1996, peaked higher on the Billboard 200 (at number 63), and was also nominated for a Best R&B Album GRAMMY®. Its cover of Bill Withers’ “Who Is He (And What Is He to You?)” topped Billboard’s club chart. Produced by Gamson, it featured a longer list of noted associates, including several heard on the debut, as well as Billy Preston, Bennie Maupin, David Torn, Wendy Melvoin and Paul Riser.
Another three-year break between albums occurred, during which time she collaborated with rapper Queen Pen on the track “Girlfriend.” Bitter, for which she was billed as Meshell Ndegéocello, was released in 1999. She took another three-year break and emerged with Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape — as Meshell Ndegeocello — in 2002. Comfort Woman followed in 2003 and Dance of the Infidel, a sprawling album made with numerous collaborators from the jazz world, surfaced in 2005. Two years later, her fantastic Decca debut, The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams, which included guest appearances from Pat Metheny and Oumou Sangare, was released.
Her first pop-related recording in half a decade, 2009’s Devil’s Halo featured Ndegeocello in a quartet setting. The album also included guest spots from Lisa Germano and Oren Bloedow. Ndegeocello toured the album in opera houses and concert halls across the United States and Europe. In 2011, she partnered with GRAMMY®-winning producer Joe Henry for the album Weather; it was issued on the Naïve label. In 2012, Ndegeocello released Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone, a collection of tunes intimately associated with the legendary vocalist and pianist. Comet, Come to Me, another deep set of introspective songs, followed in 2014. During the next few years, she appeared on a wide assortment of recordings by the likes of Terry Lyne Carrington, Chris Connelly, Benji Hughes, Marcus Strickland (whose Nihil Novi she produced) and Ibeyi. She returned as a leader in 2018 with Ventriloquism, for which she reinterpreted formative R&B classics of the ’80s and early ’90s.
More about Meshell Ndegeocello
Since 2016, she’s been scoring the Ava DuVernay series Queen Sugar and all through January she was the artist-in-residence at the 15th annual Winter Jazzfest in Manhattan for which she did a string of separate performances.
Her music has been featured in a number of film soundtracks including How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Lost & Delirious, Batman & Robin, Love Jones, Love & Basketball, Talk to Me, Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls, The Best Man, Higher Learning, Down in the Delta, The Hurricane, Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom, and Soul Men.
She has appeared on recordings by Basement Jaxx, Indigo Girls, Scritti Politti and The Blind Boys of Alabama. On The Rolling Stones’ 1997 album Bridges to Babylon she plays bass on the song “Saint of Me.” On Alanis Morissette’s 2002 album Under Rug Swept, she plays bass on the songs “So Unsexy” and “You Owe Me Nothing in Return.” On Zap Mama’s album ReCreation (2009), she plays bass on the song “African Diamond.”
Ndegeocello was also a judge for the 2nd, 12th, 13th and 14th Annual Independent Music Awards to support independent artists’ careers.
In December 2016, the world premiere of Ndegeocello’s Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin, a new theatrical music and art work created by Ndegocello, was held in Harlem, New York.
About the Ford Theatres
At 1,200 seats, the Ford Theatres creates an intimate concert experience that is a favorite among Angelenos. Each season, the Ford hosts music, dance, theatre, film and family events reflective of the communities that comprise Los Angeles County. Proceeds from IGNITE @ the FORD! events benefit the Ford Theatre Foundation. The Ford is owned by the County of Los Angeles and operated in partnership with the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Ford Theatre Foundation. Nestled in a canyon of a County regional park in the Cahuenga Pass, the Ford Theatres has a rich history dating back to 1920.
The 2019 Season at the Ford Theatres is made possible through the support of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Additional support provided by Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, along with ABC7; City National Bank; Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles; Discover Hollywood; Edison International; First 5 LA; Fusicology; Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown Charity Fund; The Garland Hotel; Heirloom LA; the Hilton Garden Inn; Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Community Foundation; The James Irvine Foundation; KCET/PBS SoCal; KCRW; LAArtsOnline.com; Metro; the Millennium Biltmore; Million Dollar Round Table; Motev; The National Endowment for the Arts; NBC Universal; The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation; Sidney Stern Memorial Trust; Univision; Whole Foods; and Yelp.com.
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Visionary vocalist and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello performs songs from her new album Ventriloquism, as well as a selection of her favorites. Musically, Ventriloquism has the hallmarks of all of Ndegeocello’s work — lush and investigative, subversive and sublime. As always, she pays tribute to her diverse influences and in these cover songs, we hear them layered over one another. The reimagining deconstructs and comments on the narrow expectation of sound and structure for black artists and black music, while offering a musical refuge during these uncertain times. Ventriloquism is released 25 years after her GRAMMY®-nominated debut album Plantation Lullabies.
Saturday, July 13, 2019 at 8:00 pm
Ford Theatres, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood, CA 90068; just off the 101 Hollywood Freeway, between Hollywood and Universal Studios in the Cahuenga Pass
On site, stacked – $12 per vehicle. Carpool and save: three or more people per vehicle save $5 on parking. A FREE shuttle to the Ford services the Universal City/Studio City Metro Station lot at Lankershim Blvd. and Campo de Cahuenga. The Ford shuttle stops in the “kiss and ride” area and cycles every 20 minutes. Non-stacked parking is available off-site for only $8, with free shuttle service to the Ford, please check the website for details.
$30, 40, and 55
Phone: (323) 461-3673
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