Though she is largely obscure outside of jazz circles (particularly those connected to the festival circuit), Rachelle Ferrell is unquestionably one of the most dynamic talents in contemporary pop music. Very few vocal artists in the industry have Ferrell's potent combination of range, phrasing, and musicianship (she is also and accomplished pianist). Such potency was made powerfully aware to Blue Note Record's head Bruce Lundvall who first heard Ferrell on a demo tape (while driving to the supermarket) and signed her shortly thereafter in 1990 after seeing her perform in Germantown, Pennsylvania. So impressed was Lundvall with her talents, that he signed Ferrell to both the Blue Note Label and the Capitol Label allowing her to funnel her talents through the prism of traditional jazz and R&B. In short, Rachelle Ferrell's talents transcend generic classification and Lundvall had the foresight to realize such a fact. Lundvall quickly set out to plan Ferrell's coming out party via a showcase at the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival. In the past, the showcase was used to introduced the talents of Dianne Reeves (also signed to both labels), Stanley Jordan, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Live at Montreux 91-97 captures Ferrell's moving debut at Montreux in July of 1991 and subsequent performances at the venue throughout the decade of the 1990s.
Ferrell first emerged in the states with her R&B debut Rachelle Ferrell (1992), a solid collection of self-penned originals that featured a striking duet with Will Downing ("Nothing Has Ever Felt Like This"). It was with the release of First Instrument in 1994 (recorded prior to Rachelle Ferrell) that audiences were really introduced to Ferrell's jazz sensibilities. Many of the tracks eventually recorded for First Instrument were part of Ferrell's program at Montreux in 1991 (she was backed by the Eddie Green trio in both cases), but the live material offers listeners, particularly those who have never heard Ferrell "live", to witness her simply extraordinary live performances. However accomplished Ferrell's studio recordings have been, the studio is simply incapable of capturing an artistic sprit that refuses to be contained and limited by the constraints of making a record. Live in Montreux 91-97 opens with a dutiful hard-bopped rendition of the Sam Cooke classic "You Send Me" which Ferrell sings so effortlessly and gleefully that it's a wonder that more jazz vocalists haven't recorded versions of the song. Ferrell's rather pedestrian (by her standard) scat finish initially gets a solid rise out of the crowd. The standard "You Don't Know What Love Is", similarly gets backed by a spare hard groove courtesy of Tyrone Brown on bass, as Green's bright piano lines are shadowed by Ferrell's dark hues throughout the first half of the track. But it is Ferrell who brightens up after Green's solo, dancing melismatic flourishes on-top of Green and Brown's vamp.
Simply whetting the curiosity of the crowd, Ferrell is well into her thing with the original "Don't Waste Your Time". On the fast paced tuned Ferrell show that she loses neither her timing nor her gift for nuance as the groove begins to overheat (again courtesy of a Green solo). It is in the midst of the song's pulsating close that Ferrell first gets the audience off their feet as she displays the triple-octave screech that has made her such an extraordinary live performer. In some regards "Don't Waste Your Time" is just a set-up for her off-the-chart version of "Bye-Bye Blackbird". Again matching the triple espresso pace set by Brown, midway through, Ferrell vocals literarily apes the sounds of birds in frenzy. But it's the closing of the song (impressive even on First Instrument) that Ferrell, during her first Montreux become Rachelle Ferrell. Seemingly pacing herself through 30 seconds of scats as if she was measuring her tour de force moment, Ferrell unleashes a flurry of bird sounds finally punching out over and over the phrase "Black Bird" (24 fours times by my count) as her lungs sound as if they are about to collapse for lack of air. It is this kind of stream of consciousness modernist frenzy -- where Miles Davis should have met the great Shirley Caesar -- that really sets Ferrell apart from contemporary Jazz vocalists, save rare moment with Al Jarreau.
Despite her ability to hang when the pace is amped, Ferrell perhaps best distinguishes herself on ballads. Ferrell introduces the Rodgers and Hart classic "My Funny Valentine" as a song done by "everybody's mothers sisters grandmothers first cousins aunts kid's sons" before doing a version so personalized that it exists as an aura around her. Dripping like some gin-drenched molasses, Ferrell sings "is your figure less than Greek / Is your mouth a little weak?" and a host of the song's lyrics like a lazy Sunday morning that promises redemption and salvation, without ever having to leave the comfort of Nana's quilt. (You can almost hear Gwendolyn Brooks somewhere in the background saying "When you have forgotten Sunday…"). On her own composition "I Can Explain", which was included on her most recent studio disc Individuality (Can I Be Me?) (2000), Ferrell is also on the piano, giving the audience a glimpse at her dual genius. Ferrell almost stops time midway through the song with the lyric "you wanted me all to yourself / I just found out, you've got somebody else", holding the last syllable for nearly 13 seconds. Alongside her finish of "Bye, Bye Blackbird", Ferrell's performances of "My Funny Valentine" and "I Can Explain" are the clear highlights of Live at Montreux 91-97.
Ferrell is joined by longtime collaborator George Duke on "I'm Special" a track that would later appear on Rachelle Ferrell. Duke is also on keyboards for Ferrell's version of Cy Coleman's "With Every Breath I Take" (drawn from Ferrell's appearance at Montreux in July of 1997. Also taken from that appearance are Ferrell's performances of "Me Viola Seul" and "On Se Reveillera" (both in French) backed by members of the WCR Big Band Cologne.
There was a six-year gap between the releases of First Instrument and Individuality, so the release of Live in Montreux 91-97 is a welcomed release from an artist who admittedly has had less than a consistent presence in the studio. Live in Montreux 91-97 is a literally "best of" more so because it captures Ferrell at her best -- on stage and pushing the boundaries.