Meshell Ndegeocello On Genre, Jazz & Jim O’Rourke

Yes, the weather in NYC right now is downright depressing, but if you can hold on just a little bit longer, it’s supposed to be absolutely beautiful this weekend. And you know what this means: plenty of time to spend outdoors.

And if you haven’t already planned your entire weekend, definitely consider heading over to Central Park tomorrow from 2:00-7:00pm for the SummerStage30 Blue Note Jazz Festival with Meshell Ndegeocello, Roy Hargrove, and Gabriel Garzón-Montano.

Brooklyn Radio’s Lara Gamble spoke with Meshell in advance of the show tomorrow about how genres should not exist in the music industry today, and she shared a few recommendations for artists she’s currently listening to.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Washington, D.C.

How did growing up there affect the formulation of your voice and your unique sound?

The city is known for a diverse style of music. I was there at a time when go-go was popular.  Music nowadays is so compartmentalized, and I loved DC because it wasn’t. I had the 9:30 Club and Blues Alley.  Adam Morgan is a section of town where I could go and hear a lot of African music, and DC was the nation’s capital, so every tour passed through town.

Who would you name as early influences on your style?

 Gil Scott Heron, Miles Davis.

What would you say are the marked differences in jazz today versus say fifteen or twenty years ago?

Our focus on the catalog. I feel like there’s a lot more interesting writers….I think people feel freer to experiment and do all kinds of things. I think that’s what different. People are starting to get free from the “genre” game that even exists in jazz.

Many people say that you played a very important role in the birth of the neo-soul movement. Do you agree?

I wouldn’t say that, but other people do. There’s nothing new, sorry. I mean, there’s so many records I could reference. We’re constantly referencing each other, and that’s the sad thing about the Pharrell verdict. That’s part of making music or a part of being a creative person.

You’re always taking instinct and putting it through your channels. There’s no neo anything. We’re all just…I think there are a few forms. People either like to dance, people either like to hear a lot of lyrics, people like to hear how fancy and fast the guys will play. The genre thing is just a waste of time to me, theoretically. Sorry to be long-winded.

No, I agree with you. So, you’ve released more than ten studio albums over the length of your career. How do you feel you’re able to stay so current while staying true to your own voice?

That’s subjective. I mean, to some people….I mean, I went to eat at this place right by me, and met this one waiter there. The other day, it was like he slapped me in my face and woke me up. (Laughs.) He and I were having a conversation, and in that conversation, I realized that making a name for yourself has a limiting power to it because then you have to continue to give people that thing.

People believe that you have to give them the past all the time, you know. You found your niche. So, I don’t stay current, I just try to have a hint of nefarious. I don’t think I stay current. I just try to just be honest.

Maybe that’s why people relate to you staying true to yourself.

 Yeah because if I kept current now, I’d be playing, you know, late 80s/90s music.

Your latest album Comet, Come To Me was released on Naïve Records last year. What was your inspiration behind that album?

Just to write some songs. I think I’m seen as somebody who makes concept albums, and this one, there is no concept. There’s probably more concept in the title. The concept is about, basically, early in human history, a comet meant devastation was coming. But for some cultures, it meant a good harvest is coming. It’s all about interpretation. And that, I think, no one has control over. So, however someone views that record, views the songs, I’m not trying to give them any ideas. I just want them to have their own experience.

Right. That’s great. Who are you listening to these days?

Oh, this guy. Let me think of his name. Jim O’Rourke. He is really freaking good. He’s a new name somebody gave me. I really like The Fall. Do you like them? It’s led by this guy named Mark E. Smith, and he’s insane. And it’s like, I call it modern, improvisational music because he always has a different band with all these different feelings and they all record it as if it’s a jam session. They just come up to the mic and go, and then they edit, you know? “Dr. Buck’s Letter,” “Hip Priest,” and “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’” are their best songs. Don’t trust the bars that are determined by most downloads.

Yeah, so funny, a lot of jazz musicians I have interviewed recently say that they gravitate more towards improvisation more than anything else.

Oh, yeah. I’ve been into this guy Mark Turner for a long time, but then one day I realized, his songs are such a vehicle…there is no song. There’s just some information so he can get to the soloing part. It’s just a sonic framework.

So, yeah. I really like this guy because he also has a way of just chopping up words and phrases that are just as interesting and improvisational as the musicians are, and it’s grounded in groove. So, that’s what I’ve been listening to.

How did you become involved with this year’s Blue Note Jazz Festival with SummerStage?

Jill Newman asked me. Do you know her?

So, she just reached out and asked you, and you were like, “Sure.”

Yup. I don’t see it as a brand. I just see it as you get to play outside at Central Park.

And it’s supposed to be gorgeous this weekend.

Yeah, cross your fingers.

Yeah, I know. Knock on wood. Do you have any other plans for summer?

Yeah, after that I go to the Capital Jazz Fest, and then after that I go…I mean, I just came from Europe, so I’m still in that zone. Then I’ll take a break, and then I’ll think of something else to think about.

Do you have anything else that you want to add or promote?

Oh, yeah. I do think my next recording will be an improvisational recording.

Oh, great. We will look forward to that.

I appreciate that.

Thank you so much for taking the time.

Oh, yeah. Thank you for your time. These are just my limited opinion.

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