Meshell Ndegeocello honors soul diva Nina Simone in an album and tour coming Sunday.
It seems inevitable that bassist and singer/songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello would pay tribute to the life and music of the late Nina Simone.
Although born 35 years apart -- Simone in 1933, Ndegeocello in 1968 -- they are profoundly kindred spirits, strong-willed but sensitive in their battles to be accepted on their own inconvenient terms. Both are iconoclastic black females who refused to be constrained by the conventions of race, gender and sexual identity, let alone the pigeonholing of musical genres. But, abetted by penetrating honesty and voices as dark and lustrous as mahogany, both have delivered artistry that is soulful to the core.
Ndegeocello is humbled by the comparison -- and, naturally, isn't content to let it go unchallenged.
"I must admit, my mind doesn't work like that," she says by phone from her New York home, thankful that it was mostly spared from the ravages of superstorm Sandy. "I need to admire Nina Simone on her own, as one of the most incredible musicians I have ever heard. I can't compare myself to that."
Indeed, the title of her Simone tribute, released last month, is "Pour Une Âme Souveraine," which translates to "A Sovereign Soul." A tour with her quartet to support the album will stop at the Dakota on Sunday.
Ndegeocello exercised her own sovereign muse in her choice of songs and arrangements. "House of the Rising Sun," long a reliably somber lament, is jolted into a scathing rock rave-up. The hypnotic sway of "See Line Woman" is exploded into a psychedelic swirl. And while Simone had already bumped Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" out of its doleful folk balladry, Ndegeocello gooses it again into a nimble shuffle.
Simone, who was known to offer different treatments of the same song, likely would approve.
Winnowing the material was a tougher chore. Ndegeocello says she wanted to include "some no-brainers that would give the project clarity," but also emphasize songs Simone wrote, and songs where she produced the definitive version.
"A lot of people did 'Suzanne," but I thought hers was the quintessential one. And she didn't write 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood,' but that's her song."
Input from the disc's many guest stars also played a role. The gospelized grandeur of "Nobody's Fault but Mine" was tailor-made for singer Lizz Wright -- "probably my favorite guest," said Ndegeocello. Conversely, Sinead O'Connor said she'd participate only if she and Ndegeocello did a duet on "Don't Take All Night," a song Ndegeocello clearly isn't happy with, and the lone tune on the album she won't perform on tour.
Drawing out undercurrents
Aside from the Wright track, the "no-brainers" provide the most subversive and incandescent moments on the disc, a phenomenon likely to be repeated at the Dakota. Ndegeocello provides a frothy, doo-woppish tinge to "Be My Husband" that sharpens the contrast with the specter of abuse that hovers over the song.
"When I realized that song was written by [Simone's] husband, I wanted to draw out that complicated relationship," she said.
On the disc, the climactic closer is "Four Women," written by Simone and probably her most iconic song. It references a quartet of characters, each of whom serves as an archetype for the way black females have been subjugated throughout American history. The spooky, spectral music provides an ideal backdrop for Ndegeocello's dynamic vocals, resulting in a riveting, gothic performance.
The absence of guest stars on the tour could be a blessing in disguise. As good as singer/guitarist Cody Chestnutt is on another Simone-penned classic, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," who wouldn't prefer to hear what a bold, interpretive singer like Ndegeocello does with such rich material?
In the end, what Simone and Ndegeocello share most completely is an inability to camouflage what they are feeling. As the interview was winding down, Ndegeocello was asked about Simone's tune "Feeling Good." It has been covered by dozens of singers, but Ndegeocello is perhaps the only one who voices the lyric "happy" with a sudden pang of vulnerability that changes the complexion of the entire song.
"Isn't that song the weirdest song you've ever heard?" she demanded. "Have you ever heard Michael Bublé do that song? Man, you don't want me to deconstruct it for you. I had to do it my own way."