The Return of the Diva
Rachelle Ferrell’s latest release Individuality (Can I Be Me?) was easily one of the most anticipated releases in 2000. Ferrell had not released a studio recording since her “jazz” recording First Instrument was released in 1995. Ironically First Instrument was actually recorded prior to her eponymous debut in 1992. In what a very savvy move, Capitol released the R&B/lite jazz flavored Rachelle Ferrell first in the hope that she wouldn’t be pigeonholed as a “jazz” artist. The decision was perhaps a direct product of the experiences faced by fellow vocalist Dianne Reeves, whose dexterity in both the traditional jazz and R&B worlds has been lost on many audiences who have come to view her solely as a jazz vocalist.
Like Reeves, Ferrell was signed to a two-label deal that allowed her to record “R&B” for Capitol and “traditional” jazz projects for Blue Note. Ferrell chose not to record for over seven years so that a previous production deal would expire allowing her to sign a more lucrative one. She toured extensively during the period, most notably with the Jazz Explosion tour, which at various times included performers such as guitarist Jonathan Butler, saxophonist Gerald Albright, pianist George Duke, who has produced both Reeves and Ferrell, and vocalist Will Downing. It has been largely on the strength of Ferrell’s show-stopping performances—her vocal range is simply astounding as is her piano playing—that she has been able to remain in the memories of fickle and forgetful audiences. Despite not releasing any product since 1995, Ferrell performances remained sell-out affairs. With Individuality (Can I Be Me?) Ferrell was primed to continue a recording career that is arguably secondary to her career as a touring performer.
Audiences who craved a return of the Rachelle Ferrell who recorded First Instrument will likely be disappointed with Individuality (Can I Be Me?). Employing the services again of producer/arranger George Duke, Ferrell wrote or co-wrote all of the tracks, in the process walking a fine line between the R&B flavored pop-Jazz pabulum usually relegated to contemporary jazz radio stations and the kind of artistry that attracted her to listeners nine years ago, with a debut release which had little or no promotional support. Quite frankly, as the title First Instrument suggest, Ferrell possesses the kind of voice in which the singing of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” would be a cultural event. It is perhaps the possibilities her talent engenders that makes Individuality (Can I Be Me?) such a mixed experience; the studio simply cannot contain a voice that was made for the stage and a improvisational sensibility that rarely, if ever, gets conveyed, on studio recordings.
What most distinguishes Individuality (Can I Be Me?) from her previous recordings, is her attempt to convey a more grittier, bluesy, dare I say funky, style. This style is most evident on the title track “Individuality (Can I Be Me?)”, which serves as a re-introduction to her cores fans and those whose musical attentions spans may change last from season to season. Thankfully, unlike many of her contemporaries, Ferrell has chosen to eschew any semblance of an “urban” formula that could, ironically, cross her over to urban contemporary radio. In recent years, such attempts to crossover to urban (read young) audiences by stalwarts like Patti Labelle and Gladys Knight have been painful. Such an effort, for all intents, crippled the career of Oleta Adams. There is something to said about the rewards of such a formula given the fact that Dianne Reeves has not recorded a “cross-over” project since Never Too Far (1989).
Tracks such as “Sista”, the explosive “Why You Wanna Mess It All Up?” and the infectious lead single “Satisfied” will not likely ever see the clipboards of some “mainstream” radio programmers, though the tracks perhaps present some of the best contexts for Farrell’s vocals. “Sista” is a far more weightier conversation on “sisterhood” than any of the saccharine Babyface compositions, excepting Mary J. Blige’s “Not Gon Cry”, that appeared on the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack. “Why You Wanna Mess it All Up?” provides a musical foil, in guitarist Jeff Lee Johnson, that matches Ferrell’s prodigious vocals. It in these decided bass “heavy” contexts that Farrell vocals come close to matching the power of her live performances. Notably the same can not be said for tracks such as like the plodding “I Forgive You” and the forgettable “I Gotta Go”.
As always, Ferrell’s strengths lie in her ability to interpret and caress ballads. Such is the case with her memorable collaboration with Jonathan Butler on “Gaia” which is arguably the best track on the recording. The duet with Butler, who has rarely recorded the kind of material that does justice to his fine tenor voice, will make some listeners forget how compatible Ferrell was with vocalist Will Downing on their stirring duet “Nothing Has Ever Felt Like This” which appeared on both her debut recording and Downing’s Love’s the Place to Be. On the track “Reflections of My Heart” Ferrell is joined by her brother Russ Barnes, whose own vocal quality is reminiscent of Caribbean crooner Jon Lucien and the aforementioned Will Downing. Ferrell is perhaps in her best element on the recording’s final track, “I Can Explain”. The song, which clocks in at about eight minutes is the best showcase of her talents, in that it only features her vocals accompanied her own piano playing. The song, which is reminiscent of the beautiful “With “Every Breath I Take” from First Instrument, is by itself a full measurement of why Ferrell consistently distinguishes herself from so many other vocalists. At one point in the song she holds a note for close to 14 seconds as she twist the phrase “You’ve got some else”.
In some of the promotional material for the recording, figures ranging from fellow vocalists such as Angie Stone and Natalie Cole and pre-eminent black public intellectual Cornel West sing praises to the artistry of Rachelle Ferrell. West, in fact, calls Ferrell this generation’s “Sarah Vaughn”. Though Individuality (Can I Be Me?) doesn’t fully live up to the hype surrounding its release—largely the product of uneven material—it does legitimate the experiences of so many of the folks who have been privileged to hear Ferrell live these past years and validates claims that she is one of the singularly most important “voices” in the industry.