The 15th annual Winter Jazzfest in New York opened on Friday, Jan. 4 at Le Poisson Rouge with “Thing Called Life: Prince Reimagined,” a concert by the festival’s artist-in-residence Meshell Ndegeocello. It was a risky move, for it recalled the bad old days when the Kool Jazz Festival toured the nation with such headliners as Gladys Knight, War, and Roberta Flack—fine artists but not true jazz acts. Much like George Gershwin and Frank Sinatra, Prince and Ndegeocello aren’t true jazz acts either, but they have real connections to our music—both as absorbers and influencers—and this kickoff show successfully opened a window on the back-and-forth borrowing between the two spheres.
Ndegeocello was a smart choice to illustrate this dynamic. The Washington-raised, Brooklyn-based R&B singer is a virtuoso bassist and an open-minded arranger willing to accommodate improvisation and substitute chords—much like Prince, whose 1978 debut album inspired her to become a musician. And her opening-night concert (despite equipment problems, under-rehearsed numbers, and overly long dance mixes) illustrated a crucial aspect of the porous boundary between pop music and jazz: It’s not enough to embrace a non-jazz genre; you have to embrace the right artists within that genre.