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Meshell Ndegeocello (feat. Brandee Younger & Julius Rodriguez), 'Virgo'

A few years ago, in a catalog essay for a major exhibition of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, critic Greg Tate cast a sidelong glance at the voguish recent turn for Afrofuturism, a creative mode that took shape on the margins before accruing its cultural and literal currency. Tate, who died in 2021, had in mind a more organic, less calculating ideal for the Afrofuturist impulse — like the one so alluringly drawn on "Virgo," a coolly aerated funk jam by Meshell Ndegeocello.

"They're calling me / Back to the stars," Ndegeocello sings at the top of the track. Then: "Deep outer space." She plays a synth-bass and chordal vamp, over a head-nod funk beat; her vocals assume both a curvilinear croon and a confiding murmur, hinting at cosmic secrets. The song's two featured guests — Brandee Younger on harp and Julius Rodriguez on Farfisa organ — deepen the seraphic shimmer, against an evolving cycle of funk and club rhythms. Ndegeocello, who played bass in one of Tate's early bands, isn't conforming to anybody else's idea of the celestial plane. When she sings of supernovas, she sounds like a witness.

"Virgo" is the first taste of The Omnichord Real Book, a musically expansive, tonally introspective release, and Ndegeocello's first as a leader for Blue Note. To call it her version of a 21st-century jazz album would be misleading, but not entirely off the mark. Produced by Josh Johnson, it has contributions from brilliant improvisers like guitarist Jeff Parker, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, vibraphonist Joel Ross and pianist Jason Moran, with whom Ndgeocello collaborated almost a decade ago on All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller. "Virgo" — which resurfaces on the album in a different arrangement by master saxophonist Oliver Lake — is just one pathway among many that Ndegeocello opens, extending an invitation.

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