Imagine photographer Art Kane’s “A Great Day in Harlem” repopulated with singers of all stripes, culled from jazz, pop, R&B, opera and world music, and you begin to understand the immensity of Bobby McFerrin’s latest experiment in vocal alchemy. Developed over seven years with co-producers Roger Treece and Linda Goldstein, VOCAbuLarieS features 53 singers—including McFerrin, Treece, Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel, all four of the New York Voices, Luciana Souza, Theo Bleckmann, Curtis King, Lisa Fischer and Rhiannon—variously blended across some 1,400 vocal segments.
Three of the seven tracks, though thoroughly reconstructed for this project, will be familiar to McFerrin fans: “Baby,” “The Garden,” “He Ran All the Way” and “The Train” (the latter two entwined as “He Ran to the Train”) appeared two decades ago on Medicine Music. VOCAbuLarieS opens with the re-imagined “Baby.” Like a lullaby floated atop the gentlest of breezes, it distills eight minutes of pure infantile joy and indefatigable curiosity. The soaring “Say Ladeo” follows, shaping the album’s thematic cornerstone with its message that “the melody will tell the story as we go along.” The wordless “Wailers” suggests a sleek herd of gazelles sweeping across a dusk-lit plain. “The Garden” unfolds like rainbow-colored blooms stretching toward the sun, and the closing “Brief Eternity” progresses from hymnlike solemnity to a swirling exercise in dream dancing. But the most compelling of these masterpieces is “Messages,” a cornucopia of languages constructed by lyricist Don Rosler that rises like a melodious Tower of Babel, exalting the incomparable beauty of universal harmony.