The first time I heard vocalist Rachelle Ferrell–in 1991, as a much heralded newcomer in a Montreux Jazz Festival showcase–she scared the hell out of me. It wasn’t just her ridiculous range, said to span six and a half octaves, or even the superpiccolo high notes, which immediately earned her the Minnie Riperton Most Likely to Upset Neighborhood Canines Award. Specifically it was her eerie command of those top two octaves, and the fact that she would occasionally manipulate them in ways that suggested demonic possession. At the time, Ferrell had just finished recording her first album, First Instrument, a solid jazz set on a Japanese label; it didn’t arrive in the U.S. until 1995. At that point it provided a skillful counterbalance to her eponymously titled second album, a pop and R & B collection that had come out here in 1992 and was still on the pop charts. The success of that disc has carried Ferrell through the present; she’s yet to release another, and her public performances have been relatively few and far between. Like Riperton before her, Ferrell always runs the risk that her freak-show range and fantastical technique will bury her interpretive skills: when you drive the Batmobile, people rarely notice how well you stay within the lines. But she can shelve the fireworks for her ballads, which include sultry torchers and pastel-and-velvet hymns; she rises to the occasion on all-out jazz swingers; and even on her gospel-fervent up-tempo tunes, she often manages to balance musical demands with the urge to strut her considerable stuff. By the way, all this analysis will probably strike people who’ve already heard Ferrell as beside the point: for the most part, her music engenders immediate idolatry or rapid dismissal. Monday, 8 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-923-2000. Ferrell’s also the entertainment at a $150-per-head Brazilian-themed benefit for the DuSable Museum this weekend; the price includes cocktails and dinner. Saturday, 6 PM, DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl.; 773-947-0600, ext. 500. NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.