Rachelle Ferrell doesn’t like to call herself a jazz singer. She released her debut CD, First Instrument
, in 1990 in Japan specifically to avoid being pigeonholed as a jazz artist by American audiences, a label that could have limited her marketability here.
But while her original songs and her delivery have a lot of pop, soul, R&B and maybe even easy rock in them, she most definitely belongs to jazz. (And not just because jazz fans love to co-opt what they feel is superior music.)
Ferrell’s new CD, Live in Montreux 1991-97
, is a clear testament to why Blue Note - a strictly connoisseur jazz label - would include the funky, soulful Ferrell in its roster. In 11 numbers from three different appearances at the famous Swiss festival (the first nine from 1991), all of Ferrell’s talents are well represented: her perfect diction and annunciation, her natural music making, her acrobatic scat singing and her incredible range, including those long high notes only bats can hear.
Even the mellower quietstorm numbers seethe and are full of the kind of musicality that makes casual listeners stop and pay attention. And the more rocking numbers - such as the Sam Cooke opener "You Send Me" or the Ferrell original "Don’t Waste My Time" - are jaw dropping and impossible not to bounce along to.
What’s more, Ferrell’s trio on most of the disc - pianist Eddie Green, bassist Tyrone Brown and drummer Doug Nally, her Philadelphia combo for many years - are right in step with her. Green is a fine keyboardist, underlining Ferrell’s incredible stunts and adding fills and thrills in between. Brown grooves as hard as anyone, swinging on the standards, cruising on the upbeat R&B numbers, and caressing the gentle soul ballads. And Nally is that rarest of creatures, a drummer who understands dynamics, keeps the beat and propels the tune with quiet brush strokes, and controls the tension with power and feeling, not volume.
Montreux Jazz Festival founder Claude Nobs introduced Ferrell, first in French ("une chanteuse formidable
" needs no translation) then in English, describing Ferrell’s 1990 debut at the festival when both he and his audience were held spellbound. Sure, every festival organizer says that when he’s introducing a lovely young woman, but Ferrell quickly backs up the story.
After her cooking "You Send Me," she moves onto the jazz favorite "You Don’t Know What Love Is," ripping the bluesy heart right out of the melody and working the lyrics for all their worth. Again the trio stands as her equal through the performance, and again Ferrell impresses with the control she has over her instrument. Sometimes she doesn’t sound human, but she always sounds distinctive and completely herself, bringing to mind such classic artists as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. It’s not so much that she sounds like Fitzgerald or Vaughan - she doesn’t at all - it’s more that she takes a song and makes it here own with supreme confidence and artistry, as those goddesses of old did.
Ferrell’s "Don’t Waste Your Time" is excoriating and virtuosic, with the vocalist pulling out all the stops, showing that scatting is not a dead or defunct artform and singing over a range of more than four octaves. "My Funny Valentine" is rendered with great tenderness and clarity, with a great solo by bassist Brown.
Ferrell’s "I Can Explain," a smooth ballad that brings to mind her mentors Grover Washington Jr. and George Benson, follows as a heartfelt and well-structured soul-pop duet with Green. If, on occasion, the singer goes a little over-the-top with the ultrasonic high notes and moaning scat, it’s not just because she can: She uses the effects musically and she wields her instrument precisely.
Another of Ferrell’s mentors, keyboardist George Duke, who produced this album and her self-entitled ’92 disc, makes a guest appearance on "I’m Special," leading an electric band that adds to Ferrell’s smooth soul sound. She rips anew on the always uplifting "Bye Bye Blackbird," with Brown opening the cut with a blistering bass solo before the rest of the Eddie Green trio leaps in. Then she reduces the heat again, but keeps the pot boiling, with her shimmering "Prayer Dance."
The last three tracks date July 1997 and include Duke again with guitarist Jonathan Butler, bassist Larry Kimpel and drummer John Roberts as well as a small orchestra. "With Every Breath I Take" is gorgeous, again bringing to mind many chanteuse formidable
(i.e. Betty Carter, Dinah Washington and today’s first lady of jazz vocalese Dianne Reeves). "Me Voila Sol" and "On Se Reveillera," both by noted French chansonnier
Charles Aznavour, close the album. It’s to Ferrell’s great credit that even if you don’t know French, you know exactly what she’s singing. It’s also to her credit that even if you don’t like soul - or jazz, or pop, or R&B - you can’t help but be right there with the Swiss audience all the way through these stunning performances.