By Sam Bleazard
“Ladies and Gentleman, Rachelle Ferrell!” It’s Saturday night, the tables are set, the lights are down low, and the audience having already had superb entertainment from Ronnie Scott’s house band are good to go…but where’s the main act?
Its show one of two in the intimate surroundings of Soho and the band are already jamming, but we needn’t have worried, the Philadelphian doesn’t keep us long. Following a short pause for the applause she appears dressed in black, with natural fro, square-rimmed black glasses, finished off neatly with black baseball boots – and sipping on a generous glass of red wine to boot. An already relaxed crowd is immediately put at ease, but intrigued by what musical hors d’oeuvre this unique artist will serve now that the first drink has been poured.
Rachelle Ferrell may not be a name widely known in the UK even though her career spans the best part of 20 years in the US and other parts of the world, notably Japan where they are big fans of her vocal jazz recordings. She has form in jazz but has also dabbled in the fields of RnB and Pop. My memory of her is from the late 90s when I saw her at a week-long music festival in Minneapolis, Minnesota – I felt then that she was a once seen never forgotten artist. I remembered the name.
Best known for her piano and vocal jazz work I was intrigued to know how she would test her famously dextrous vocal range at the grand piano set up onstage, and instead of the three piece band we were promised in the programme there is the addition of an electric guitarist to make it four. To my surprise, and perhaps to those in the audience, the show starts with Rachelle Ferrell strapping on an acoustic guitar. She acknowledges this by explaining her need to push herself, and her writing, outside of a musical comfort zone.
This is a feature of her short set, an interaction with the crowd which is always warm and funny, and although she hints at self-deprecation – whether about learning a new instrument or making the odd mistake on new material – she’s a woman with supreme confidence in both stagecraft and her considerable abilities.
Without indicating how long she’s been learning the instrument, she shares stories of growing up in the supportive environment of the Church, where the elders would routinely comfort the off-key stumblings of many a nervous child on the platform for the first time, with calls of “that’s alright”, and “sing baby”. And so it comes to pass, that for some fun she asks us to do the same for her. It’s a feel-good moment and one in which the audience doesn’t feel so much nervous for the artist, but rather completely connected in a moment, which is amusing and arresting, and no doubt exactly as she’d planned. It also doesn’t detract from the new material, which she feels like she’s been working on “for 17,000 years now”, and which is 75% of the way there. The working title of her new set is “the Art and Soul of Rachelle Ferrell”, which in the hands of lesser mortals might seem like a slightly pretentious title. However this is a woman channelling not only the most incredible vocal tone, but also a complete love of expression.
At first there’s a sense that while the acoustic guitar is in her hands, chuckling “Bear with me because I’m having to split my brain in two”, she is merely warming up vocally, so there’s a smoulder and a powerful whisper to new tunes such as ‘Courage to Care’. She then stands at the mic for “Sister” a song about female pride, “We’re the ultimate multi-taskers” she says by reaching out into the audience. To say she’s expressive would be a major understatement. From her mouth to her toes her physical form seems to be designed to maximise her body as an instrument, her virtuosity of breathing, chanting, riffing melodies and rhythms is something to hear. At one point she asks us to join in a melody part (“I feel it”), and there’s a great moment when she wanders into the room to banter vocally with a trio of fans from Manchester. The audience is a mixture of those in awe and those mesmerised by her sheer force of vocal personality and control. Each song is an extended journey built masterfully in accordance with her water-tight four-piece band, and there’s tension, release, tenderness and power to burn, without being particularly self-indulgent with it.
She eventually moves back to her comfort zone – the piano – but after what only seems like two songs, and with the crowd baying for more, she’s gone. It’s the only disappointment in what has been a musical master class of expression. It’s a very short set of just over an hour, but with one eye and ear on the late show, perhaps this was something of a warm up – but if so it’s the best you’ll ever hear. Rochelle Ferrell is a real talent, I only wish I could have heard more.
If you want a chance to hear her, the following YouTube clip has had just under 60k views at the time of writing, by clicking on it you’ll not only be able to add to that number, but you’ll get a chance to sample her extraordinary vocals.
Hopefully she’ll be back on these shores again soon.