Rhonda Richmond's voice comes as a complete surprise. An earthy, organic, smooth sound weaves itself around your soul and into your heart. I first heard Richmond sing, swaying softly to the music, for the small crowd of jazz-lovers gathered at the Mississippi Museum of Art atrium on an October Thursday.
A few weeks later, sitting upstairs in Banner Hall, Richmond's face broke into a smile when I told her how that deep voice surprised me. Her uncle, Mayo Richmond, loves to tell about the time when the quiet 3-year-old completely surprised him, asking in her deep voice, "What's your name?"
Turns out that little girl had a contralto voice—a little lower than alto, sort of like a female tenor. Richmond grew up in what she calls "the era of high voices," with soloists like Aretha Franklin, and "I guess that's why I never thought about singing solos." But she's solo now, backed by extraordinary musicians, and in October her Ojah Records CD "Oshogbo Town" was re-released nationally.
In the Yoruba culture, according to Richmond, Oshogbo is the home of Oshun, the African goddess of love, prosperity and creativity. On the CD's cover art, Richmond is making offerings to the deity. The CD itself is an offering from Richmond to her listeners. "It's all based on love ... abundance, prosperity and creativity. I'm thankful for that."
Piano, at her mother's side, was her first instrument. Velma Richmond "taught me middle C and all my notes at a very young age," Richmond explained. At Powell Junior High School, Kermit Holly Sr., on record as Jackson State's first band director back in the 1940s, was her violin teacher. Two other important things happened while at Powell—she discovered her love for writing poetry and played trombone in the band; her friend and mentor, Jackson jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, played clarinet.
Richmond writes on a keyboard, transfers the chords to other instruments, and allows the creativity of her instrumentalists to come into play.
Performing makes you a great musician, Richmond says. "That's where the improv [scatting] comes from … I love to do it." Richmond likes the intimacy of small jazz venues where the crowd is close. "I'm trying to tell a story in my lyrics; to me that's most important. That's the zone that I'm in when I'm singing."
Richmond next performs Nov. 20 at the Mississippi Museum of Art Atrium between 6 and 9 p.m. Her CD is on sale at BeBop and other music retailers.