I like this CD a lot, but I can understand why Meshell's record company didn't know what to do with it, and why some of her fans don't like it. This is nothing like any other recording with her name on it. What it is is a great example of contemporary, straight-ahead jazz, with just a little bit of avant-garde flava.
There is definitely an In a Silent Way/Bitches Brew feel to some of the CD, what with the extended jams by large ensembles on tunes like Al-Falaq 113 and Luqman, but this is pure jazz, not jazz rock or jazz funk-soulful and modern, but not fusion. While there's electric bass throughout, electric guitar on one cut and electric keyboards and subtle atmospheric electronics on others, the instrumentation is predominantly acoustic-sax, trumpet, clarinet, piano, drums, harmonica, and voice. The last song, the standard When Did You Leave Heaven, sung by Lalah Hathaway, has such a traditional arrangement it could have been recorded any time in the last fifty years.
I have to admit that without her name on it I wouldn't have known Meshell had anything to do with this CD, but now that I know I hear her influence in the sultry, stony vibe some of the tunes have, like Aquarium (lots of spacey electronics on that one, with a beautiful vocal by someone named Sabina-I heard it as an anti-purdah song, but maybe it's just about a suffocating love affair); the title track, which is probably the most overtly "soulful" of the tracks on the CD; and especially the incredibly sexy song Cassandra Wilson sings, The Chosen, which incorporates lines from The Song of Solomon and ends with her purring "Come bare your soul to me...Come bare your soul to me...come....come....come...." But it's not all laid-back-those jams get pretty wild, as you would expect with players like Oliver Lake and Don Byron involved. The arrangements, incidentally, are beautiful throughout, with nice little touches like the steel drum solo that introduces Papillon.
This is a Meshell Ndegeocello (or as she is called everywhere but the front of the CD, Meshell Suhala Bashir-Shakur) project, not a Meshell Ndegeocello CD. She's very involved in that she wrote or co-wrote all but one of the tunes (only three of which are actually songs), co-produced and co-arranged the album, and is present on most of the cuts. On the other hand, she doesn't sing at all, doesn't play on three cuts (accounting for 24 minutes of the CD's 62 minute playing time), and shares bass-playing duties with another musician on 2 cuts.
But who cares? It's a great record. I hope the connection with her moves more units and opens more ears.
I did a little research and found out the brief opening track's name, Mu-min, means "a person who has deep faith in Allah and is a righteous and obedient servant of His." Al-Falaq 113 refers to one of the Koran's suras of refuge. Al Falaq means "The Dawn", and the number is the number of the sura, It's a very short sura. One translation goes "Say: 'I seek refuge with the Lord of the Dawn/From the mischief of created things/From the mischief of Darkness as it overspreads/From the mischief of those who practice Secret Arts/and from the mischief of the envious one as he practices envy." Luqman is the 31st sura of the Koran, named after Luqman the Sage. It is much too long to quote here. It's a profession of faith, urging people to turn their backs on their pagan traditions and follow the teachings of Muhammad and the way of Allah. It concludes "Verily the knowledge of the Hour is with Allah (alone). It is He Who sends down rain, and He Who knows what is in the wombs. Now does any one know what it is that he will earn on the morrow: Now does any one know in what land he is to die. Verily with Allah is full knowledge and he is acquainted with all things."