Rachelle Ferrell made her Ronnie Scott’s debut last night with two sold out shows.
Rachelle Ferrell made her debut at London's Ronnie Scott’s last night with two sold out shows. Her last UK date was in 2001 at the Jazz Café.
The enigmatic singer's recording career began in 1990 with ‘First Instrument’, a jazz album on little known Japanese label ‘Somethin’ Else’. Her stunning six and change octave range caught the ears of Jazz FM DJs and she was featured extensively, especially her take on Sam Cooke’s ‘You Send Me’ and a live recording of the standard ‘Autumn Leaves’.
Since then she’s confounded fans by completing only three studio albums and released a subsequent collection of live recordings from Montreux Jazz Festival. As her career developed, there was a record company effort to de-pigeon-hole her as a jazz artist and present her as an r&b singer. Her more explosive vocal gymnastics were seemingly reigned in for the second album. To this day Rachelle describes herself biographically as a contemporary pop artist. If only today’s contemporary pop music had room for such an extraordinary talent.
The anticipation was palpable. It’s testament to the esteem in which she is still held by British fans, and singers, that even with her long, unexplained hiatus, she still sold out four shows on two days at Ronnie’s this weekend. Putting down an immediate disclaimer, citing jet lag, Rachelle started gently on an effortless funk groove, a new song 'Survivor', before exploding into her signature voice. There clearly was no need for a disclaimer. It’s a voice that stretches from the deep resonance of Mavis Staples to way beyond the upper register of Chaka Khan with a sweet Minnie Riperton candy coating. Ferrell is blessed with larynx and facial physicality which allows her to contort and change the shape of her lips to span the range in an instant switch.
Joined by a rhythm section from Atlanta, she delivered firm favourites including 'Satisfied' and ’Sista’, which she sang with no keyboard accompaniment, a first for her and the band. Not that the keyboards were absent. Rachelle, a self proclaimed, “raging non-conformist”, believes in challenging rules in the pursuit of her art and encourages us all to do the same. Again, with the unnecessary disclaimer about rust around the edges, she said, “the last time I was responsible for holding down the music from behind the piano was in the summer at a place called Martha's Vineyard for the President and the First Lady so bare with me.”
Friday nights at Ronnie’s can sometimes be frustrating because of the audible conversation of passing tourist trade, the clangs and clinks of cutlery. Her musicianship is beyond any reproach. Sat at Ronnie’s grand piano you could have heard the proverbial pin drop as she floored the audience with renditions of ‘I Can Explain’ and the poignant ‘Peace On Earth’.
At times she was unconfined jazz, or perhaps just unconfined joy, as she urged the crowd to celebrate life. Bursting into improvised rhythmic vocalese, reminiscent of Al Jarreau or Janet Lawson, her percussive breaths, further contortions and life affirming outbursts filled the club.
There was appreciative applause as Rachelle re-affirmed the good news about a new recording. “So, I have an update about the new record,” she said, “everywhere I go I hear the question “oh Rachelle, what about the next record? What have you been doing for the last ten years?" Well, I believe when you hear the new album, it will answer all of those questions about where I've been and what I've been doing. It's about 75% done. There's some amazing material on it. I'm really happy with how it's coming along"
There’s no scheduled date for a release just yet for ‘The Art and Soul of Rachelle Ferrell’. It will certainly be a notable event when it arrives.