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TSJR’s Featured Smooth Jazz Artist

A profile of our selected smooth jazz artist of the month

Because we appreciate the talents and hard work of all of the many artists in our beloved smooth jazz genre, TSJR has made it a standard practice to highlight and honor one artist each month who has established himself or herself as an integral part of the smooth/contemporary jazz “engine.” This month, we honor:

Rachelle Ferrell – A Heeded Call to Musical Excellence

Search as hard as you like, there really are only a handful of albums by the phenomenon that is Rachelle Ferrell. That’s when you must question the music industry. How can it be that a talent as complete, as natural, as beautiful as she possesses be denied the exposure it so deserves?

Ms. Ferrell was born and raised in Pennsylvania. She hails from a musical family; her mother and her aunts sang in the church choir. She began singing when she was six years old. She also had classical training on the violin from an early age. In her teens, her father, who she credits with encouraging her musical development, bought her a piano on the understanding that Ferrell should study it to a professional level. Within six months, she had her first paid performance singing and accompanying herself on the piano.

Ferrell went to Berklee College of Music to study composition and arranging where among her classmates were Branford Marsalis, Kevin Eubanks, Donald Harrison,and Jeff Watts. She graduated in a year and taught music for a while with Dizzy Gillespie for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

From 1975 until 1990, Ferrell sang backup for a whole host of artists including Lou Rawls, Patti Labelle, George Duke, and Phyllis Hyman. Her debut, First Instrument, was released in 1990 in Japan only. Recorded with bassist Tyrone Brown, pianist Eddie Green, and drummer Doug Nally, an all-star cast of accompanists also left their mark on her record. They include trumpeter Terrence Blanchard, pianists Gil Goldstein and Michel Petrucciani, bassists Kenny Davis and Stanley Clarke, tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and keyboardist Pete Levin.

Her unique take on standards like Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love,” and Rodgers & Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” captured the hearts and souls of the Japanese jazz-buying public. In 1995, Blue Note/Capitol released her Japanese debut for U.S. audiences, and the response was similarly positive.

“Some people sing songs like they wear clothing, they put it on and take it off,” she explains in the biographical notes accompanying First Instrument. “But when one performs four sets a night, six nights a week, that experience affords you the opportunity to present the song from the inside out, to express its essence. In this way, a singer expresses the song in the spirit in which it was written. The songwriter translates emotion into words. The singer’s job is to translate the words back into emotion.”

Her 1992 self-titled U.S. debut, a more urban pop/contemporary album, was released on Capitol Records. She was signed to a unique two-label contract, recording pop and urban contemporary for Capitol Records and jazz music for Blue Note Records.

For four consecutive years in the early ’90s, Ferrell put in festival-stopping performances at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Although she has captured the jazz public’s attention as a vocalist, she continues to compose and write songs on piano and violin.

Ferrell’s work ethic has paid off, and Gillespie’s predictions about her becoming a “major force” in the jazz industry came true. Her prolific songwriting abilities and ability to accompany herself on piano seem only to further her natural talent as a vocalist.

When asked the age-old question regarding how she cultivated her distinctive six-octave sound, she responds frankly and without hesitation.

“That’s a long process and if I divulged that I would have to charge you. That’s not the kind of information you give for free,” she says with genuine laughter. But Ferrell resumes the dialogue with an easy air and discusses the underpinnings of her immense talent. “It took a great deal of discipline … first and foremost on the part of my parents. They supported me, in terms of my father being the progenitor of the musical talent … and then on my mother’s side, she sang in the church choir, and her extended family, her aunts, her uncles and her father were musical.”

Unabashedly honest and free of the ego-driven constraints that all too often accompany fame and accomplishment, she shares an insight into her musical process.

“I incorporate some of the things that everybody else incorporates in their field of endeavour, you know, like food and hydration. Taking a nice hot shower and connecting with my breath before I have to use it in a whole other way and being consciously aware of that.”

But Ferrell explains that her daily regimen and her process for preparing vary significantly depending on the day and the destination.

“My days are kaleidoscopic. A day in the life of Rachelle Ferrell can look very, very different and not just look differently, the feel and the experience differ depending on what day it is. When I am on the road and I am performing a concert … there is a very different type of discipline employed in that day. It’s a day focused on and dedicated to the generation of energy. It’s almost like I am getting a picture in my mind’s eye, the third eye, of a rocket ship, like NASA having to power up for the launching. It takes a lot of generation of energy and fuel and fusion to launch the rocket ship into orbit and it’s very similar with me on concert dates is dedicated to that process, so when I step on the stage it’s there for me, and the connections can be made.”

Excruciatingly painful back problems threatened to take Ferrell away from the live-concert circuit she cherishes, but physical therapy, as well as a change in diet and footwear, helped her power back.

Hard to believe from the singer who, in 2014, appeared on a new web series called “Now What with Kevin E. Taylor,” where moved by Spirit, she sang her entire interview and at one point, reduced the host to tears.

She can scat like Jarreau, crescendo like Ripperton, and gently bring you back to earth like Simone. But she accomplishes that feat with a sister-woman kind of finesse, sparing nothing to get you to your destination … as a person.

“I make music because I was called and appointed to do not just the music, but the music that I do. Every person comes to the planet to both give something and receive something. To teach something and learn something. It’s a spiritual contract, so what another person has come to give no one else can do, and it’s the same thing with me … artistry reminds us of ourselves and that’s why we celebrate anyone who excels and breaks beyond the current paradigm of boundaries … that gets our attention and reminds us of who we really are,” she explained.

Great performers share themselves to inspire the listener to reflect on our humanness and embolden us to take the next step toward a life well-lived. Ferrell’s wealth of talent and her generosity of spirit not only adds her to the list of great performers, it moves her into the realm of living legends and a real tour de force for the ages. – Steve Giachardi