STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
Rachelle Ferrell is one of the most distinctive voices in jazz. Her 6-octave range and unique vocal phrasing clearly sets her apart from most vocalists. But add to that her instrumental prowess and songwriting capabilities and she is clearly much more than just a great singer. She returns to the Keswick Theatre on March 6.
Ferrell started singing as a young child. She had classical training in violin and then piano. After graduating from Berklee College of Music, she had the opportunity to teach alongside Dizzy Gillespie. She then worked as a backup singer for the likes of Lou Rawls, Patti LaBelle, Vanessa Williams and George Duke.
After about 15 years as a backup singer she launched her solo career. Her debut album “First Instrument” was released in Japan in 1990 (though it was actually released in 1995 in the U.S., subsequent to her eponymous release on Manhattan Records in 1992). “First Instrument” was an album of mostly interpretations of jazz standards with an all-star ensemble including bassists Tyrone Brown and Stanley Clarke, pianist Eddie Green, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, among others.
Ferrell began to feel more confident about her songwriting and her subsequent albums featured her original material. She will soon be releasing “The Art and Soul of Rachelle Ferrell,” an album of all original music and her first release in 14 years.
Ferrell, who is originally from Berwyn, PA, now lives in southern California. We had the opportunity to speak by phone while she was in New York City for a 4-night Valentines weekend engagement at The Blue Note.
Ferrell considers music her “gift from God.” Yet her road wasn’t an easy one.
“Every artist has, you know, a beginning. And mine was kind of rough,” she said. “People look at me and perceive I’ve always been treated a certain way, and I’ve always been respected for my music… but that was not the case. It wasn’t like I was coddled, taken under someone’s wing, allowed special privileges. I had good mentors, but my family and friends cut me no slack.”
After graduating from Berklee, Ferrell had the opportunity to teach alongside Dizzy Gillespie. She still considers that a significant achievement.
“Working with Dizzy Gillespie was a highlight – obviously, most assuredly, in the moment that it happened. And as time went on, that highlight continued to grow… in retrospect because it was only through the continued growth in my own personal education as a musician, and growth in my awareness of who Dizzy Gillespie was, and what he means to the musical community, and what his contributions have been, and how extraordinary a breakthrough pioneer he was. I didn’t know all that at the time, when I worked with him. I knew the name Dizzy Gillespie, but I didn’t have an appreciation for the magnitude and the comprehensiveness of his gift and his artistry, and his contribution to the planet and to the music world. The older I get, the prouder I am of that moment as a teenager.”
It is perhaps because of her own challenges that Ferrell now wants to continue her art and simultaneously be a mentor and guide for other aspiring musicians.
“The difference is huge right now, between the record industry of the ’90s and the year of 2016,” said Ferrell. “(The industry has) been turned upside down and inside out and any other direction you can think of as a result of the digital world and the World Wide Web coming into being. It’s changed the lay of the land as well as the landscape, and how to traverse that land.
“One piece of my dream is to use myself as a guinea pig and figure it out. The other portion of the dream is about once having established that, to then go about creating a safe haven/repository of information and wisdom and experience. Sort of like a revamping of something that’s long since been done away with in the music industry, and that’s artist development. So it’s a combination of providing opportunities for extraordinary, gifted new artists, unheard artists, (and that) doesn’t necessarily mean young people either. Those who have all the qualities, not to mention the mental fortitude and temperament, to be able to be an artist in the year 2016.”
She added that this would be “with a new business paradigm, dare I say for the New Age, the new millennium, which is about good, clean ethics and morality, principles (and) integrity.”
The music business could certainly use more of all that. And we can all certainly use more Rachelle Ferrell in our lives. Don’t miss your opportunity to see her at Keswick Theatre.
“I always look forward to returning to the Keswick because it’s almost like returning home. It’s a place where my friends and family who knew me when can come out and enjoy the music that they used to complain about to me,” she laughed.
Did you know?:
As a child, Ferrell was a regular at Berwyn Pizza. In order to work out vocal arrangements in the songs she was writing, she had to pay her sister Jackie to sing harmony. “I’d hear a harmony… and I needed another voice. And even way back then we pretty much sang very closely to one another. It was like hearing my own voice singing… but she didn’t want to sing the way I did. So I had to pay her in cheesesteaks. She would bribe me – ‘I’ll sing it 2 times if you buy me a cheesesteak!’”