05/11/10 By Lee Mergner
Bobby McFerrin: Some Kind of Wonderful
Acclaimed singer releases first album in eight years
Bobby McFerrin has a favorite word, one that comes up over and over again during the course of a recent interview with the singer. The word is “wonderful,” which he uses to describe so many things – fellow musicians, noted composers, responsive audiences, favorite songs, and any number of his collaborators. It seems that although he recently turned 60, McFerrin is still filled with a childlike sense of wonder.
His newest album, VOCAbuLarieS, on Decca, is his first in over eight years and features McFerrin with a large cast of singers, including Janis Siegel, Theo Bleckmann, Luciana Souza, Lisa Fischer and members of the New York Voices. There is minimal instrumental backing by percussionist Alex Acuna and saxophonist Donny McCaslin. The project was produced by composer and arranger Roger Treece who labored long and hard to recreate and rearrange McFerrin’s vocal improvisations with a cast of dozens.
Speaking on the phone from a hotel in Prague, McFerrin has no problem in giving Treece his due credit. “I tip my hat to this man because he went through so much of my material,” the ten-time Grammy winner explains. “Live concerts, solo concerts, voicestra concerts, all of which are improvised. He found all these grooves and things and he expanded them, wrote them out, rewrote them and rewrote them. I’d go to the studio and he’d say ‘I’m just going to open up 24 bars and sing me a bass line here or a melody there, whatever.’ It was a wonderful collaboration of me, the improviser and Roger, the composer. And he just made it all work and it was fascinating.”
McFerrin may be known for his live solo improvisations, but this album sounds not only like it wasn’t done in one room, but like it was done in many a room over a long time, with many a performer. McFerrin confirmed that supposition is mostly right. “A lot of it was done in one room, but with one, two or three singers at a time,” he recalls. “The altos would come in and do their parts and then the tenors would do theirs. I’m not sure how he [Roger] had it all mapped out, but I think he had a certain task for each day. Whenever I’d work with him, he would have a list of things that needed to be worked on.”
If it sounds like a painstaking process, that’s because it was. From start to finish, the project took eight years. The singers were recorded one at a time or in groups to create a virtual choir consisting of over 1,400 vocal tracks. The many hours of studio time resulted in a final mix with over 100 gigabytes of memory.
McFerrin revisits a few of his more memorable compositions such as “The Garden” and “Baby” which first appeared on his Medicine Music album, released way back in 1990. However, the arrangements are decidedly different—longer and more complex. “Yes, they are different,” he says about the recreation of his old songs. “I had been getting a lot of inquiries from choirs to develop music to sing and I was looking for a way to extend the pieces. I think 'The Garden' and 'Baby' were the very first pieces we worked on. 'Baby' was like Roger’s audition piece in a way. And I thought, 'Well, this is fascinating.' I like all the different places it goes.”
But if you are expecting to hear the prototypical chest-tapping Bobby McFerrin solo improvisations, like in The Voice or in many of his live performances, forget it. This is a horse of an entirely different color. McFerrin was clear about his intentions from the onset and they reflected his own experiences as a live performer. “The concept was always choral. It was always about voices singing together. Even in my solo concerts, I don’t even consider them solo concerts because I use the audience to riff with me…to provide harmonies and rhythms and changes to play over. This stems from all of that – my working with the audiences and growing up with choral music. I sang in a church choir. [I’ve been] getting calls from different choruses, asking: ‘When are you going to write something for us to sing? We’d really love to do your material.’ Linda Goldstein, my manager for over 30 years, is pretty much the one who thought of the idea of doing this. I think the idea popped into her head about 12 years ago.”
Getting people to sing along certainly is something that McFerrin is passionate about. I told him about my interview a few years back with the late Jane Jarvis, jazz pianist and longtime Shea Stadium organist, who bemoaned the decline of communal singing. When Jarvis would play the National Anthem before a baseball game, she aimed to have everyone sing along. Now the ritual is more like an audition for American Idol. McFerrin sided with Jarvis on this issue. “I would agree that the death of communal singing is real,” he says. “I try to revitalize communal singing in my concerts. I love the sound and the surprise of human voices coming in my direction. I love being bathed in the human voice: Having all these wonderful chords and singers, singing to me and with me and for me.”
Lord knows, audiences have always sung with McFerrin even going back to his early days, where he could get an entire theater singing the musical themes of The Wizard of Oz merely with a wave of his hand or a nod of his head. He’s never needed to plead or beg to get audience participation. “It’s always been that way,” he acknowledges. “I think that the reason is because everybody really does want to sing. I think singing comes out of everyone’s heart. There are so many people in the audience who took voice lessons as a kid or young adult and then gave them up and they’re out there thinking to themselves, “I wish I’d continued my voice lessons. I wish I’d continued my piano lessons. I really want to do this.’ As an audience member myself many times, when I go to a concert, I’m singing background voices all along and I’m thinking it would be great to contribute that part on stage. And I think there’s a part of everyone that feels that way.”
It should come as no surprise that McFerrin has a real appreciation for the hit television show Glee, which has done wonders for making a cappella singing cool. When I asked the thoughtful and measured McFerrin if he would consider appearing as a guest on the show, he didn’t hesitate in his response. “If I was invited to make a guest appearance, I’d think I’d do it. I think it’s great that a cappella music is starting to get its due, with shows like Glee and the NBC series Sing Off that they just did recently and I think that’s been picked up again. And I am really, really hoping that it ignites a fire at college campuses to get their a cappella groups and choirs going. I think it’s time.” Quick, someone call Ryan Murphy (creator, writer and producer of Glee) and give the man a cameo.
The album has a very international feel to it. Much of the lyrics, or more accurately vocalese, is in various languages—Latin, Italian, Sanskrit, Zulu, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, Portugese, Mandarin, French, Arabic, German, English—as well as some sort of invented language all McFerrin’s own. Yet McFerrin is not some sort of world musicologist, but instead leans heavily on the influences of his youth. “For me it was the sound of this music,” he notes. “A lot of stuff I learned as a teenager growing up, due to top 40 radio back in the ‘60s. Back then it had everything on it: rhythm & blues, pop music, music with Christian lyrics, movie soundtracks, Latin music. Look, Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 would have a tune on top 40 and then you’d have James Brown or Deodato playing an arrangement of “Also Sprach Zarastrusa” [sings a bit of that]. Now we’ve got a 60s station a 70s station, a Christian music station, soul stations. You just turn on Sirius/XM and you see how it’s been divided up into categories. But in the late 60s, top 40 radio played everything.”
Whatever the sound, McFerrin is singing in fine form. His voice sounds as strong and supple as it did 30 years ago. How does he do it? Volume, volume, volume. “I sing very softly,” he explains. “I don’t sing any louder than my speaking voice. I think that has a lot to do with it. The softer I sing, the more flexibility I have.” Unlike many singers or performers, he’s not particularly ritualistic or obsessive about preparation. “I don’t have any superstitions. I don’t wrap my neck in scarves. I don’t have any rituals that I do before going onstage, except maybe to pray and ask God to help to give me ideas and to help me get through the night and help me to bring joy to people’s hearts. That’s basically why I do what I do.”
For a singer like McFerrin, who seemingly can sing almost anything or collaborate with nearly anyone, his greatest artistic challenge would seem to be deciding on his next dream project. Say what you will, the man is not afraid to think big. “My dream is to put a band together with Eric Clapton, James Taylor, Alison Krauss and Steve Gadd,” he exclaims. “I haven’t figured out who the bass player is yet!” Although I have some difficulty imagining what that group would sound like, I tell McFerrin how much I love James Taylor’s voice, which has become sui generis in American roots music. “I do too. Yes, I do too. And hearing him singing together with Alison Krauss would blow me away.”
He’s no ordinary bandleader. McFerrin has had a virtual second career as a conductor of orchestras, but he has decided to put that vocation on hold at present. “I don’t do much of it any more because I had to make a decision what to devote my time to. I decided to cut way down. I think I’m only conducting once this whole year.” McFerrin couldn’t say how the conducting affected his singing, but he could say what he loved most about conducting. “Mozart. So interesting and joyous, and he’s a punk. He wrote this interesting and off-the-wall kind of stuff. Studying the architecture, the lines of his music and the things that he wrote at such a tender age, I enjoyed studying and conducting his music probably more than anything. His musical understanding at eight is so mature. He’s just a freak of nature. He brought me such tremendous joy.”
McFerrin is not leaving the classical world totally behind, because he is planning on an upcoming project with some classical ties—a collaboration with arranger, keyboardist and accordionist Gil Goldstein. “He’s really something,” he says. “In one piece he arranged, he combines one of Chopin’s pieces with ‘Donna Lee.’ I’m looking forward to that!”
Growing up in the Bay area, and making the scene in New York and Los Angeles, McFerrin seems like an unlikely resident of my hometown Philadelphia. That was something I never would have predicted. “Me neither,” he responds, chuckling. “I was living in Minneapolis for awhile and it was too cold. I was working with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra which I loved. It was just a wonderful experience. Anyway, I spent six seasons with them and I lived in Minneapolis for seven years. One April I was conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra and it was springtime and I was sitting outside in a wonderful café and the trees were in bloom. I thought, ‘This is great.’ In April back in Minnesota they’re still having winter time. My wife and I looked around and found an old farmhouse in the woods. One thing about Philadelphia that people don’t know is that it’s a very wooded place. We found this old farmhouse with nothing around it and bought that and built it up, so we now have place that’s very peaceful and very calm and quiet. I need that coming off a tour surrounded by people. It’s nice to go somewhere where there’s nobody, where there’s no one there. I really enjoy that kind of solitude.”
Of course, one of the advantages to living in the relatively quiet low-key city of Philadelphia is that he and his wife have been able to raise their three children with a minimum of distraction and pressure. Recently, Taylor McFerrin, their oldest, has reached some level of fame on his own terms as a hip hop musician and producer. I told McFerrin he must be proud of his son. “I’m proud of all my children. My daughter graduates from high school and she’s going to Berklee College of Music in the fall. My son Javon is like all the other actors in New York, just trying to get parts and going on auditions and stuff like that. But I believe in all three of my children and I think that they’re all going to do well in their lives.”
The legacy of a life in the creative arts didn’t start with McFerrin, because he was likewise the fortunate recipient of parental inspiration and support. Both his father, Robert McFerrin, Sr., and mother, Sara Cooper, were accomplished opera and classical singers, who raised their son Bobby and his siblings in a Bay area household devoted to music. “Yes, I was raised with two wonderful musical parents,” he readily admits. “I heard great music as a kid. I’m fortunate that I had that kind of an education early.”
Having a balance in his life is very important to McFerrin who for many years have evenly split his work and family commitments. “Yes, I like to do six months on and six months off.” And those six months on includes many dates in the U.S. and Europe, doing solo shows. But he’s not averse to more collaborations with jazz people.. “I loved working with Chick Corea. I know that Charlie Haden has expressed some interest in doing some stuff together. I’m open to any or all ideas.”
It truly is a wonderful life.
Originally published in May 2010