Bobby McFerrin: Don’t worry, just sing

Vocalist extraordinaire Bobby McFerrin, composer-conductor Roger Treece and 40 voices including the Danish “rhythm choir” Vocal Line performed pieces from the album VOCAbuLarieS at Jazz at Lincoln Center Friday and Saturday night, establishing a high standard for contemporary vernacular choral music and breaking down the 4th wall between artists and audiences. It was a deeply satisfying, beautiful and joyous show.

McFerrin, now 59 60, delighted the mostly middle-aged crowds with his unique sonic language, amazing (and seemingly effortless) technique and utter approachability. He invited untested strangers to join him onstage to sing or dance, improvising warmly with all comers as well as engaging freely with Treece’s complex vocal scores and duetting with Treece on “Drive.” McFerrin’s son and daughter joined him for an endearing beat-box version of the Beatles’ “Oh Darling,” and he included some of his best known set-pieces, including his acapella rendition of “Blackbird” from the White Album and his audience-participation demonstration of the globally-understood pentatonic scale . . .

But his highly personal approach projected to the loosely-styled but precisely voiced choir was the raison d’etre of the 115-minute concert. All those voices (backed only by two percussionists) shifted within the songs through African, Middle Eastern, Caribbean and Brazilian accents, allusions to Earth, Wind and Fire’s “12th of Never” and Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” Don Rosler‘s English lyrics for VOCAbuLarieS and pre-language utterances. These pieces never lost touch with McFerrin’s uplifting message of universal communion.
VOCAbuLarieS is his first record in eight years, a project 12 years in the making, released last spring. Since then McFerrin and Treece have performed it 20 times in the U.S. and Europe, using local (highly trained) choirs everywhere. The suite-like work addresses ambitions that McFerrin’s evident modesty has previously downplayed. Though he shunned celebrity status and easy followups to his breakout 1988 hit “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” in the past 20 years he’s conducted major orchestras, duetted with Yo-Yo Ma, Chick Corea and Placido Domingo (among others), convened and sustained his 12-person “Voicestra,” and toured steadily. VOCAbuLarieS, conceived by McFerrin’s longtime manager/producer Linda Goldstein, has been created so that it can be attempted by singers without McFerrin’s participation, thus preserving a legacy that is unmatched in the history of popular or art song.
Disclosure and anecdote: I’m assigned to write a script for the Jazz at Lincoln Center radio series about McFerrin’s show, and to do so sat in for three hours on McFerrin and Treece’s rehearsal of the choir prior to the Rose Theater show. Being so close to 40+ voices breathing and singing together in a small studio was an exhilarating experience. Afterwards, on my way home, I bought a bottle of wine at my favored local shop, and enthused to the young sommelier how great the afternoon had been. 
“Bobby McFerrin — what’s he got going on besides that silly song?” this hipster, referring to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” wanted to know. 
“Well, he’s the best male singer in America!” I answered. 
“Really? Really?” the wine-guy asked. “Bobby McFerrin is the best male singer in America?”
“For sure,” I said. “No singer will dispute that.” 
“Bobby McFerrin, the best male singer in America! You’re blowing my mind!” he said. 
“Well, there’s Al Green,” I added, and thought also of Kurt Elling, who proved himself at the finale of last September’s Chicago Jazz Festival. I can’t imagine who my wine-seller would have nominated (I’ll ask him), but really, nobody sings like McFerrin, who never pushes his volume beyond the level of conversation, has a range reaching extreme high and low pitches and a wide variety of timbres and effects, uses all his body to resonate his vocal sounds and for percussion, scats and makes up words spontaneously yet appropriately, seems to sing in tongues unknown or yet to be developed but meaningful nonetheless.He’s an extraordinary musician.
“That’s the first time an audience has ever sung with the artists in this hall,” said Antonio Ciacca, pianist and director of programming at Jazz at Lincoln Center, after Friday night’s performance. “I think he wants to change the relationship of artists and audiences.” Yes, he does — to make singing onstage like making music at home with family members. More like McFerrin at Lincoln Center, please — if more like him can be found.
Here’s the video for “Say Ladeo” from VOCAbuLarieS — too cute and not delivering the power of hearing the choir in person. But who’s carping? It’s a kick as it is:
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  1. Stephen Malagodi says

    But I cannot separate the technique of the musician with the repetoire they choose to do.
    Perhaps you can help me with this.
    It is the choice of repetoire that separates entertainer from artist. If that’s true, and I grant it may be a contentious point, how would that alter your conversation with the wine merchant?
    HM: I don’t think that would change my conversation or point. It’s possible to judge technique, and possible to have preferences regarding repertoire, but to be excellent one must have technique appropriate to repertoire and vice versa. I’d say the artist is a creator of himself, projecting his ideas through his repertoire, using the best techniques possible — the entertainer’s main focus is on pleasing or engaging the audience, with whatever repertoire and technique available to that end. McFerrin then is an artist in that his technique is so wide-ranging as to encompass a vast range of repertoire that he makes all his own, and the highest-minded points of his repertoire such as the especially complex and serious songs on VOCAbuLarieS — “Garden,” “Messages” (which seems to borrow from Steve Reich’s Tehilliem) — reflect ideas, themes and feelings consistent with his choices all along. Elling is an artist in that he, too, is a creator who absorbs a wide range of material originated by others into a cohesive performance character — and he enacts that character brilliantly, though there is certainly theatrical aspects to what he does. Al Green is an artist and entertainer — he’s less consistent in personalizing his material genuinely, and content to revisit his best material — but man! is some of that stuff enduringly pleasurable, and Al mixes up his singing of it, it’s never rote if sometimes dismissive and abbreviated. Entertainers, to my wine-guy, I truly don’t know . . . Bono? Kanye? Usher? the Boss (more like an artist, I’ll say, though he’s a helluva entertainer)?