There was only one point when soul singer Rachelle Ferrell lost composure during last night's gig at Yoshi's Jazz Club in Oakland. It was towards the end of her set, and she was standing before a moderately-sized, but ecstatic and worshipful audience. Ferrell was about to sing the head of "Waiting," a slow jam that usually begins with improvised melisma phrases over an extended vamp. "Oh shit," murmured someone in the crowd, in response to the singer's rich vocal adornments. "Shit," he said again. A woman sitting two tables away overheard.
"The man said, Oh, shit!'" she shouted, loud enough so that everyone at Yoshi's -- including Ferrell -- could hear.
At that point, Ferrell broke into a fit of giggles. Her drummer was already laughing. For a moment, it looked like the whole set was about to fall apart.
It took a moment for the band to get it back together, and once they did, the song was phenomenal. Ferrell stretched phrases, fattened notes, rose to the top of her vocal register, scatted over rim shot beats, and even made her voice sound like an aluminum can being crushed, or a spring uncoiling. She closed out with Ray Henderson's jazz standard "Bye Bye Blackbird" one of her signature tunes followed by the plaintive ballad, "What Did I Do to Deserve You?" The audience gave standing ovations throughout.
It perhaps wasn't the first time that Yoshi's felt like a Sunday church service, given that the club's been aggressively trading its straight-ahead jazz bookings for more R&B, soul, and even Gospel-oriented acts (the same stuff that carried Emeryville's now-defunct Kimball's East until it shut down in 2005). But it was definitely the most rousing show to grace this Jack London Square jazz house in quite a while, with constant shouts of encouragement from audience members, and enough cross-talk to render Ferrell's performance into a dialogue: "I know everything can't be cotton candy and roses all the time," she said wistfully, after the second song. "Yes it can!" someone cried.
Even a Bilal or an Amel Larrieux would have difficulty pulling off a gig consisting entirely of ballads, but Rachelle Ferrell is such a studied and imaginative singer that she managed to give the show its own arc, and make the compositions sound varied enough. Wearing horn-rimmed glasses, an afro-puff, and a lime-green dress that billowed over her willowy frame, she sang Gospel hymns and love songs, often with personal and social dimensions. She came out strumming an acoustic guitar, played electric organ on the song "Thank You, Lord," and accompanied herself on a Steinway piano for the evening's most powerful number, "Peace on Earth," which begins with the oft-quoted lyric, How can we have peace in the Middle East, when there's none at home? (Reviewers love pointing out that she released the song in 1992, and sixteen years later it remains topical). Ferrell's four-piece rhythm section was "no joke," as the singer pointed out mid-way through her set. The lead guitar played melodic rock solos while the keyboardist did stand-up bass and muted trumpet parts on his Korg Triton. Ferrell's drummer resembled a Scooby Doo character in his afro and preppy V-neck sweater, but played a really dynamic set.
But Ferrell, of course, was the one who took her instrument in the most funky directions, rendering it into a horn, a vocal trap set, and a beat box. At times the singer modulated her voice to make the same wah-wah sounds you'd hear from older funk groups like the Meters. At others, she'd belt a note that seemed to stretch forever in one direction, as though singing were both an artistic talent and an endurance sport. (She does have a way of cutting eyes at the audience to let everyone know when the big one's coming).
Most impressive, though, was how the singer used her "six-and-change" octave vocal register. Like Mariah Carey, she can do the wail without breaking pitch, but she doesn't overuse it. Rather, Ferrell keeps adding different innovations to her repertory, from the long, ululating howls to the tika tika percussion and tongue-clicking sounds that resemble those of West African jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke, to a syncopated hip-hop beat that has her gulping and hiccupping every couple bars.
"That's Rachelle Ferrell right there," whispered one enthusiastic fan to her date, as Ferrell extended the last note of her commercial R&B hit, "Sentimental." Ferrell hadn't drawn a breath yet, when the fan turned around and shouted at her: "Girl, you're doing too much!" The singer reacted calmly, smiling and sipping tea from a thermos between songs. Having performed for roughly four decades, now, she knows how to manhandle an audience, and almost never loses her cool.
Rachelle Ferrell plays Yoshi's in Oakland (510 the Embarcadero) tonight through Sunday, with shows at 8 & 10 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 7 & 9 p.m. Sun. $26-$30