ATLANTA — Half the wonder of a Rachelle Ferrell performance is watching her face.
She creeps toward a high note and every inch of her skin from brow to chin contracts in preparation for launch. On a low tone, her jaw seems to unhinge, the tone so deep she has to make room to accommodate it. It's as though she is elastic, twisting, squeezing, chewing each sound before releasing it in one of the six octaves she can hit.
She's not worried about preening and trying to be cute like a young pop or hip-hop star — the style music executives and even her managers suggested she shoot for at the start of her career.
In her 50s, she has spent the past decade getting comfortable with the fact that — like her voice — she stretches across genres, arcing toward jazz, then bending toward R&B, then reaching into the realm that sounds a lot like gospel. There are even nods to the great torch singers. When she does get up from the piano to dance, her movements are spontaneous rather than choreographed. It's clear the singer-songwriter is finally following her own script.
"In the early portion of our lives, we're trying to figure out all the rules and regulations of carving out your own identity and how to be in the world," Ferrell said. "There's something to be said about growing older and getting tenure."
Trained at the Berklee College of Music, Ferrell spent some of her early career working with Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie and George Duke and singing backup for Patti LaBelle and Lou Rawls. So from the beginning, her roots were in two idioms, jazz and contemporary R&B. But by the mid-1990s after releasing two albums, one pop, the other as jazz, she felt growing pressure to select one genre over the other. Would she continue down the path of re imagining standards like "You Send Me" and "My Funny Valentine," alongside jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, or follow the path of becoming the next songstress like Anita Baker?
"In those early days, I was pushed and really pressured to be like Anita Baker and sing like Whitney Houston," Ferrell said. "They became prototypes and the managers and the labels wanted a return on their investment to guarantee a hit. But my stance was, 'You signed me for a reason. Can I just be me?'"
Though she struggled with the industry, her voice made a mark with fans, some of whom saw her as the next Anita Baker, but others who heard a sound that was robust and could turn a standard into something richly ambiguous. For years she was a favorite at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. By 2000 she'd shed the polished, sleek R&B persona that she'd never been fully comfortable with and released the CD "Individuality: Can I Be Me?" a series of ballads that were the muddle of jazz, pop and gospel she felt formed the foundation of her musical identity.
But in some ways, being herself has come at a cost. She can hit a high note like Mariah Carey or the late Houston, but she doesn't have the same broad name recognition. While she draws crowds and is well-regarded for her songwriting as well as her voice, she has produced only four albums. It has been some time since she has had a radio hit like "Welcome to My Love" or "With Open Arms." She has, however, continued to perform live, a form she feels most at home with. One of her most spirited recent performances was a live show with her friend Baker in Detroit. During a recent show in Chicago, Jennifer Hudson joined her for a duet.
Ferrell doesn't have regrets over the trajectory of her career, though she wishes she'd had the strength and courage that she has now a couple of decades ago.
"Once you get the hang of it, you can have the autonomy, and you get the courage to sculpt your own life," Ferrell said.