NdegeOcello fuses hip-hop, jazz and soul into her distinctive sound

Even though it's already noon, Me'shell NdegeOcello sounds a mite groggy.

"I'm just a little tired, that's all," she says, over the phone from her record company's New York offices. "I had a late show last night. We did this AIDS benefit at the Supper Club. I had a great time."


In fact, as NdegeOcello (pronounced un-DAY-gay-oh-CHELL-oh) describes it, everyone there must have had a great time. In addition to her set, which found her playing with guitarist Wah Wah Watson and saxophonist Joshua Redman, there were genre-bending performances matching the Last Poets with saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, Digable Planets with Jazz Crusader pianist Joe Sample, and the Pharcyde with bassist Ron Carter.

Why all the jazz/hip-hop crossover?


"I think it stems from social factors," she says. "At the time when jazz was in its heyday, it was sort of the rebellious music, all sort of negative connotations were accompanied with it, like prostitution, drinking and drugs. Black people didn't embrace it, and it definitely wasn't called America's classical. It was the rebellious music, as today hip-hop is the rebellion.

"So I think the social factors are what unite it -- that and the freedom of it, the improvisation. What the hip-hoppers do is, they freestyle, which is a form of improvisation."

Consequently, she finds it easy to think of rappers in jazz terms. "Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, if he played piano, he would play like Monk," she says. "Because he's really lackadaisical, behind the beat, and just has this unique flow, sort of reminiscent of Monk. Eric B., to me, is like Charlie Parker, because he would just flow. He would bop through the tracks."

NdegeOcello, by the way, is equally at home with both styles. That much is evident in the sound of her debut album, "Plantation Lullabies," where songs such as "Step Into the Projects," which features Redman and pianist Geri Allen, offer a seamless blend of hip-hop, jazz and soul.

Allen, the singer says, "is my piano hero. It's so funny -- I knew her, because we have kids the same age. I just knew her as Geri Allen. But I was always a big fan of hers, and when the time !! came to have my own album, I was like, 'You have to play on here.' And she fits the track perfectly.

"And Joshua's just great. He just has a love for all musics, hip-hop to straight ahead. Everything he does feels so natural, not like he's emulating anybody. Or he'll play what I call a cliche lick, and it sounds so fresh."

NdegeOcello comes by her jazz jones naturally, having grown up listening to that music. "My father's a tenor sax player," she says. "I grew up listening to John Coltrane, Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith. That stuff has always been in my head."

But her early playing experience was with a somewhat earthier music. "I grew up in D.C. where go-go is real popular, and I played in go-go bands," she says. "I love that style, all that percussion and that funk. It taught me to respect the groove. I learned how not to play, how to just make people dance. Because that's what it is, it's dance music. I learned a lot from that."


Perhaps her biggest influence, though, was the jazz fusion sound of the early '70s, particularly the music of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. "I've always been a fan of the Headhunters and stuff like that, Herbie Hancock. He had Harvey Mason, who to me was one of the greatest drummers, because he could play around the beat and still be funky. I'm a big fan of Dennis Chambers and a lot of Parliament-Funkadelic stuff. I just love that rhythmical thing. All that stuff going on at one time just fascinates me, that I feed off of it.

"I'm also a big fan of Michael Henderson. I remember him with Miles. Well, not remember, 'cause I was born in '69," she says, laughing. "But I have those albums."

It's worth noting that many of the fusion stars NdegeOcello admires later wound up doing session work on soul and pop albums. For instance, that's Harvey Mason playing drums behind Michael Jackson on "Billie Jean," while Reggie Lucas ultimately went from Miles Davis' band to producing Madonna's first album.

"The musical cycle," chuckles NdegeOcello. "Makes you wonder. have this weird dream -- I'm playing bass onstage, and all of a sudden, I hear, 'Thank you, thank you very much.' And I look up front, and there's this old platinum blond woman, and she goes, 'The next tune we're doing was written by my guitar player, Mr. Lenny Kravitz. Stand up, Lenny.'

"It's years from now and I'm playing in Vegas behind Madonna," she laughs. "It's like a dream. It's like a nightmare at the same time."

Not that NdegeOcello -- who is signed to Madonna's Maverick label -- has anything against the platinum superstar. "It's very funny, because I'm in a weird position. I kind of choose not to say anything about her, because I can't speak for her.


"But she's probably one of the nicest people I've ever met. She's been very supportive through this whole thing, and she's great. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be signed. She's really cool."

Me'shell NdegeOcello

When: Monday, March 28, 10 p.m.

Where: 8X10 Club

Tickets: $11

Call: (410) 625-2000 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets.



To hear excerpts from Me'shell NdegeOcello's album, "Plantation Lullabies," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6118 after you hear the greeting.