04/30/08

Bobby McFerrin, Chick Corea & Jack DeJohnette at Carnegie Hall

An all-too-rare combination of virtuosity at the highest level, a shared passion for true improvisation, giddy humor, dead seriousness and hyper-inventiveness collided at Carnegie Hall when Bobby McFerrin, Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette shared a stage. The event was part of both a short tour featuring the trio and a seven-concert “Perspectives” series at the New York venue curated and headlined by McFerrin. Each show in the series spotlighted a different aspect of McFerrin’s talents and interests: one teamed him with the acappella Voicestra choir; another found him conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with cellist Yo-Yo Ma; at another he worked with bassist Edgar Meyer. (This would be a good time for this reviewer to disclose that he is currently working with McFerrin’s management on a project but would have enjoyed this concert just as much if he weren’t.)

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Thomas Schloemann

Bobby McFerrin

As is usually the plan for a McFerrin concert, there was no plan for the Corea-DeJohnette outing: the trio came out onstage, took their places and winged it for 90 minutes straight. There were no recognizable songs, save for a brief encore based on Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk.” There were no breaks. Instead there was just pure, spontaneous music, music that went every which way, quite often to places that not only the audience but the performers too could not have anticipated.

It began relatively straightforwardly with McFerrin displaying the range of his vocal cords, wordlessly and rhythmically riffing—not scat, not doo-wop, not so much a one-man band, but rather something only McFerrin does. He tapped his chest to provide percussion, leaped from bass to falsetto and everything in between, often within the same bar. Corea joined in on piano, tossing out dissonant, choppy, percussive chords as drummer DeJohnette swayed along easily. It eventually fell into a postbop groove but it didn’t stay there very long—nothing this night stayed anywhere very long. DeJohnette switched from brushes to mallets to sticks and back again. Corea soloed furiously. The melody traversed genres and geographies as it glided through a pastoral, churchy lightness to a harsh avant storm to a sweet Asian-accented section suggestive of the spring weather budding outside.

When DeJohnette finally got going, he didn’t hold back. He thundered on the tom-toms, crashed cymbals, loosened the snare and turned his power up to max. He didn’t solo until well more than an hour into the set, but when he did he proved he is still, in his mid-sixties, if not the greatest working drummer in jazz then certainly among the top few. But this show was not merely about proving what this audience already knew about these performers; it was as much about surprise. Corea’s piano runs were of course impressive, but he seemed to be having as much fun coaxing harpsichord-like sounds out of a smaller keyboard, plucking the piano strings demonically, clanging cowbell and finger cymbals, twanging a Jew’s harp and harmonizing with the other two. Yes, that’s right: Chick Corea and Jack DeJohnette sang, in near-perfect harmony no less, with Bobby McFerrin, who, when he wasn’t leading the way, managed to find his place among any sounds being created by the others.

For his part, McFerrin was having a blast. He yodeled. He mimicked Billie Holiday so convincingly the audience roared approval. He dropped in bits of blues, hillbilly and opera. He joined Corea on the piano stool for a brief duet. All three brayed like farm animals and led the audience in a sing-along, assigning parts to each section. DeJohnette played mouth organ and chimes. He threw his sticks and mallets at McFerrin, stuck a few in the singer’s dreadlocks and shirt, then retrieved them and returned to playing. He did it all in perfect time, of course.

Not everyone who paid to see this spectacle got it. Occasionally, especially during the more unconventional parts, there were mini-exoduses. Perhaps those people expected a nice, sedate jazz concert, McFerrin singing “Don’t Worry Be Happy” (he hasn’t in 20 years), Corea reprising “Spain” for the millionth time, DeJohnette doing only what drummers do. They didn’t expect to hear him use coughing as a percussive sound or smack his cymbals with a towel. They didn’t expect him to play the toms with his elbows or to engage in a tambourine duet with McFerrin, or for McFerrin to make the very intake of breath so musical. They probably wanted more of the Latinesque flavoring that Corea briefly introduced before moving on to the next thing and they probably wanted McFerrin to sing some actual English words. But that’s not what the performers wanted, not why they came together, and the standing ovation that erupted when it all came to a whispering end was the validation they earned for telling anyone’s expectations where to go.

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