Rap Combines With a Musky R & B Sound : Versatile Me'Shell NdegeOcello brings her freshness to a don't-miss concert at the Ventura Theatre on Sunday.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Imagine a fresh-sounding merging of hip-hop, Herbie Hancock's jazz-lined funk and Prince's restless creativity and smoldering sexuality, and you get a sense of what Me'Shell NdegeOcello's music is all about. But points of comparison do a disservice to her powerful new sound, as danceable as it is provoking for the mind and the libido.

To dispense with some basic data, the 25-year-old NdegeOcello is a multi-instrumentalist--primarily a skilled bassist--whose name (pronounced n-day-gay-o-CHELLO) means "free like a bird" in Swahili. "Plantation Lullabies," her album last year, received radio play on the strength of the sassy hit "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)."

As a whole, the album holds together like a sturdy statement of purpose on which erotic imperatives and sociopolitical grit are laid atop hip and steaming music tracks. She can sing, with a spooky conviction, about the link between music and sexuality on "I'm Diggin' You (Like an Old Soul Record)" and then deliver racial salvos, without skipping beats.

Comparing NdegeOcello to the likes of Hancock, Prince and Stevie Wonder may seem like so much wishful hype, but she comes to the hip-hop scene as a great hope. As on Wonder's late '70s albums, NdegeOcello finds an inspired balance between structure and looseness. Vocally, she operates in a personalized territory between rap and a musky R & B vocal approach, and she lines her organic-sounding tracks with contributions from such jazz musicians as pianist Geri Allen and young lion tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman.

NdegeOcello met a mentor recently, cutting a track in collaboration with Hancock on the fine "Stolen Moments: Red, Hot and Cool" project. The album, benefiting AIDS programs, blends hip-hop and rap artists with veteran jazz players. NdegeOcello is ideally suited to the task.

Field reports from NdegeOcello's shows have it that her cross-stylistic artistry translates well to the stage. Miss her at the Ventura Theatre on Sunday at your own risk.

TWO SIDES OF JAPANESE MUSIC

Continuing into its second season of world music meets contemporary repertoire, the Musics Alive! series, sponsored by the Ventura County Symphony and the Ojai Festival, kicked off recently at the Poinsettia Pavilion with a full and varied, yet somewhat contradictory program of Japanese music. It is well and good to expose audiences to the diversity within a given culture, but to mix the dynamic and visceral tradition of taiko drumming, presented here by the formidable Los Angeles Matsuri Taiko, with the delicacies of Tori Takemitsui's piano music presses programmatic luck.

Pianist Gloria Cheng, the stalwart new-music specialist, played Takemitsui's "Rain Tree Sketches" with a cool and startling grace--the concert's highlight. Paul Chihara's engagingly abstract "Redwood" found percussionist Deborah Schwartz and violist Jan Karlin venturing boldly into impressionistic and atonal terrain, while Toshi Ichiyanagi's "Paganini Personal" made up in energy what it sometimes lacked in clarity of purpose.

Whatever the imbalances of volume and style in the concert, it still conveyed the spirit of exploration and globalism that makes this series one of the bright spots on the local cultural calendar.

SYMPHONIC RICHES

The biggest hurdle composer Gordon Getty faces is his name. When you go through life carrying the inheritance of a name synonymous with surreal wealth, you've got something to prove to the world. Getty, far from being a recluse, has had his music played far and wide in the past several years, including at UC Santa Barbara and by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

But there is baggage involved. When we hear about a concert devoted to Getty's music, as with the Conejo Symphony's recent concert at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, suspicions arise regarding the exchange of money or favors. Getty tends to spend generous sums on musical organizations--certainly a noble thing, especially in this Gingrichy era--but the money angle dogs Getty and, unfairly or not, reflects badly on ensembles opting to play his music.

There is the question of justice due for that emaciated species--the living composer. Is there another composer alive--especially one so obstinately retrogressive as Getty--who could command (or buy) a concert of his or her music, as opposed to being granted concert-opening token gestures? Purely a rhetorical question.

Despite small favors and momentary pleasures, it was not a good night at the symphony recently when the Conejo group navigated through a mostly Getty program that was mostly mediocre. After the opening swooning of Gabriel Faure's Pavanne, it was, by and large, a downhill ride, ending with a profoundly bland piece entitled "Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna: Overture" by justly obscure 19th-Century composer Franz von Suppe, whose work was a lot of plangent piffle signifying nothing.

As for Getty's part, the orchestra, led by Assistant Conductor Howard Sonstegard (taking Music Director Elmer Ramsey's place), tried valiantly to breathe life into Getty's work. The respectable Sherwood Singers also were on hand to add to the spectacle. Getty's music included three quirky waltzes, choruses based on poems by Tennyson and Housman (circa the 19th Century, naturally), and an excerpt from his opera, "Plump Jack."

It's not that Getty is a categorically bad composer. It's just that his basic adequacy combined with a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the 20th Century gets your goat.

Talking from the stage, Getty--an amiable enough man--heartily extolled the virtues of pre-modern (i.e., 19th-Century) music. "You don't have to always be cutting a new path through the jungle!" he said. "You have to do what your angels or demons tell you to. . . . You don't have to be original. You just have to have integrity."

As it turned out, at least on the evidence of this program, Getty winds up being original almost by default. Some sort of idiosyncratic quality emerges in his style, with its disconnected cadences and odd sense of rhythmic comportment. Phrases seem to be either rushing in or hovering in long-note freeze frames. We keep sensing that the music doesn't know where to go next.

There are two sides to the Gordon Getty story. On one hand, one could argue that he has an unfair advantage ensured by his family crest. But his aim seems to be true (if severely outdated), and his patronage is a godsend. At a concert of Gordon Getty's music, sometimes the attendant issues surrounding it are more beguiling than are the notes themselves.

Details

* FYI: Me'Shell NdegeOcello will perform at the Ventura Theater, 26 S. Chestnut St., on Sunday. Doors open at 8 p.m. and tickets are $18.50. Info: 648-1888.

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