Lead vocalist: Bobby McFerrin creates one-man symphony
June 24, 2005
Ive mentioned Bobby McFerrins name to a handful of people recently, and all responded with a variation on the same theme: how McFerrin, a vocalist who typically performs unaccompanied by any instruments, makes such tight connections with the audience. McFerrin has an easy explanation for why something so esoteric as solo vocalizing often without even words is so readily accessible.Because everybody sings to themselves. Its really commonplace, said McFerrin by phone, from his home in Philadelphia. Thats what Im doing Im singing to myself in front of other people.There is an element of truth there, but its also not that simple. Most people singing to themselves elicit stares, groans and worse from those in earshot; McFerrin earns Grammy Awards for it (10 of them, and counting). The embrace from the crowd can also be partly attributed to the participatory element of a McFerrin show; he gives the audience their own parts to sing along with him.What separates McFerrin most from the pack of shower-stall singers, aside from such gifts as a four-octave range and a fantastically wide array of vocal techniques, is the sense of adventure he displays onstage. When he appears solo as he does tomorrow at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival, headlining a bill that also includes jazz singer Dianne Reeves McFerrin begins each show with a completely improvised tune. With no prepared melody, no musicians beside him, no instrument to hide behind, it is as naked as musical performance gets. The rest of his show alternates between composed tunes and pieces created on the spot just stuff that pops into my head, pieces Ive done before, he said. In the spirit of a jazz player, all of his work has a largely spontaneous element to it. Meaning that sometimes, he just barely gets by.Thats the risk of improvisation, said McFerrin, who also leads the Voicestra, a 12-singer ensemble that plays concerts that are improvised from first note to last. Some nights my voice feels like syrup or tar or gravel. Or my mind is just mush, and theres nothing there. There are nights when I think its a dud.But after doing it for so long, you recognize that its not working. You can slough it off. But thats what makes the special moments more special.McFerrin had no idea if a concert of improvised, solo vocal music could ever work when he first conceived of it.
McFerrin was born into music. Both parents were New York opera singers; his father, Robert McFerrin Sr., was the first African-American male soloist to perform with the Metropolitan Opera. Raised from the age of 8 in Los Angeles, young Bobby was introduced to just about every form of music there was.Beethoven and Basie, spirituals and gospel, r & b. It was the 60s, so just on the radio there was everything. You could hear the Carpenters, James Brown, the Association, Jimi Hendrix, Sergio Mendes in one hour, said McFerrin, who was born in 1950. And I grew up in a classical house, but my parents loved jazz. I was used to all this music being around. I thought that was the way everyone lived, that people played Gershwin and Beethoven and Ray Charles in their homes.McFerrin knew that music would be his life. He began on clarinet, but switched to piano when braces interfered with his woodwind technique. He again took a turn in his mid-20s, opting to be a vocalist and working with the New Orleans-based jazz combo the Astral Project. After touring with vocal pioneer Jon Hendricks, and finding further inspiration in the fully improvised solo performances by pianist Keith Jarrett, McFerrin began to seek his own path. He devised a form of music he had not been turned onto as a child.That comes with the territory, said McFerrin. When you recognize what your gifts are, you want to learn how to use them to be uniquely yourself. But I didnt know if this would work.Creating his brand of vocalizing was a long process. He started practicing with the technique at the age of 27; it would be six years, in 1983, before he began performing as a solo act. McFerrins vision was quickly validated; he earned his first Grammy, for Another Night in Tunisia with the vocal group the Manhattan Transfer, in 1985, and by the late 80s, he was performing on the most prestigious stages around the world.In 1988, McFerrin had a most unexpected sort of triumph. Dont Worry, Be Happy, which he created in the blink of an eye in a recording studio, became one of the most ubiquitous tunes ever. The song won Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year; the album on which it appeared, the appropriately named Simple Pleasures, a tribute to the 60s that included versions of Drive My Car and Sunshine of Your Love, was nominated for Album of the Year. Dont Worry, Be Happy, the very definition of a ditty, put McFerrin on MTV, and everywhere else.I cant explain that at all. I dont even attempt to, he says, still bewildered. Its kind of an interesting thing, isnt it?Was it enjoyable? Yes and no. I didnt like the invasion.McFerrins last album, 2002s Beyond Words, showed a more complex side of McFerrin. Backed by the likes of bassist Richard Bona, drummer Omar Hakim and pianist Chick Corea, his most regular collaborator, McFerrin sings sounds that suggest a worldly spirituality.McFerrins musicality extends beyond the voice. At the end of the summer, he is taking a sabbatical during which he intends to focus on writing lyrics for his next album. I want to be a lyricist, he said. Thats the hardest thing that I do. And thats what I really want to concentrate on.He has also become a conductor. Or as he puts it, I conduct.Im not a conductor, he said. I conduct, but I would never call myself a conductor. Its a mystery and more of a hobby. Im a singer. I know that for sure in my heart. Jazz Aspen Snowmass June FestivalRio Grande ParkFriday: David Byrne at 9:30 p.m., and Yerba Buena at 8 p.m.Saturday:Bobby McFerrin at 9 p.m., and Dianne Reeves at 7 p.m.Sunday: Boz Scaggs at 9 p.m., and Marcus Miller at 7 p.m.; and a free show with Ricky Dillard & The New Generation Chorale at 10:30 a.m.Advance tickets at the Wheeler Box Office (920-5770), at 866-JAS-TIXX, and at http://www.jazzaspen.orgRoundtrip RFTA bus fare is $2 from anywhere in the RFTA system; call 925-8484.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is email@example.com