Meshell Ndegeocello Credit: Charlie Gross

Meshell Ndegeocello is a monster bassist and captivating singer who can mine gold in numerous styles, including funk, soul, electric jazz, pop, and rock. Her versatility once seemed to hold her back—early in her career she rapidly bounced between ideas—but she refined her style as time passed, and now she’s one of the most satisfying, rigorous, and varied artists in contemporary pop music. Ndegeocello’s new album, Ventriloquism (Naïve), carries on her winning streak. Though it’s composed of 11 modern R&B covers, her ability to make each song her own positions her more like a jazz artist than a pop star reflecting on her favorite tracks. Most of the material was originally waxed in the late 80s and early 90s, but instead of the pounding drum machines, plastic synthesizers, or treacly production residue associated with that era she gives them warm, deeply human readings with lean, sensual arrangements and vocals that convey the essence of their source material without duplicating their often-frothy energy: Al B. Sure’s fizzy “Nite and Day” becomes a breathy act of seduction, the proto G-funk of George Clinton’s 1982 classic “Atomic Dog” is remade with an acoustic guitar into an introspective psychedelic ballad with a churning bottom, and Tina Turner’s AOR smash “Private Dancer” becomes a profound dirge of weightless sophistication and grace. Ndegeocello also tackles Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows in April,” TLC’s “Waterfalls,” and Sade’s “Smooth Operator,” and though she leaves crucial DNA intact, she otherwise reinvents them. Ndegeocello is a terrific songwriter, but these days no matter what she plays she turns it into something compelling and beautiful.   v