It’s twenty-four years since Meshell Ndegeocellofirst arrived on the music scene via Madonna’s Warner-distributed Maverick imprint with her debut platter, ‘Plantation Lullabies.’ Back then she was heralded as the bright new thing in contemporary US R&B; her bass heavy grooves melding fatback funk with hip-hop rhythms and trenchant socio-political lyrics. But almost a quarter of a century on, Ndegeocello is almost unrecognizable from the artist she was when she first started. In recent years, the funk and R&B vibe has taken a backseat and instead, she’s grown and evolved into a noteworthy singer/songwriter whose contemplative and uniquely atmospheric sound eludes easy classification
She has also proved to be an excellent interpreter of other people’s songs, as her 2012 album, ‘Pour Une Ame Souveraine: A Dedication To Nina Simone’ revealed. Indeed, one of the best moments of this 60-minute concert was her mellow but impassioned take on Simone’s ‘Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,’ driven by a chugging rhythmic groove. She also performed her own version of the classic lachrymose ballad, ‘Suzanne,’ by the late Leonard Cohen (“I’m a huge fan,” she explained. “He died with such grace.”). Elsewhere, the vibe was more strident and pugnacious, melding guitar-driven rock with jazz and pop. “We play 21st century music that’s representative of what it’s like to be of color in America, so we are going to be loud, we are going to be brash,” said Ndegeocello, prefacing the song, ‘Rapid Fire’ (from her 2011 album ‘Weather’), where her spoken lyrics are framed by echoing guitar shards colliding with celestial synth chords. It was a transcendent piece, transporting you to another dimension. More down to earth was a febrile New Wave-style number propelled by Chris Brown’s, but lighter in tone were the slightly whimsical ‘Shopping For Jazz,’ and the Lover’s Rock style dub track, ‘Forget Me,’ the latter two songs taken from her most recent album, ‘Comet Come To Me.’
The show ended as it began, with a mellow, downbeat number – the country-tinged ‘Good Day Bad.’ With its haunting, ruminative quality and brooding intensity, it seem to encapsulate the enigmatic essence of Meshell Ndegeocello, whose presence here at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival was a wholly enthralling one.