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Bobby McFerrin: Beyond Words

Bobby McFerrin

Surely no one appreciates the sweet curse of the monster hit better than Bobby McFerrin. Mention McFerrin’s name in casual conversation and you’re sure to hear him dismissed as a one-hit wonder who was briefly hot in 1988 with his peppy paean to positive thinking, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” on Simple Pleasures. Little do most folks realize that he ranks among the most dynamically diverse performers on the planet. As accomplished a composer, conductor and producer as he is a singer, McFerrin is an artist of incomparable flexibility who is equally at home with jazz, soul, classical or blues.

A master of vocal acrobatics, McFerrin can bend and shape his four-octave range to suit any occasion. Like Cassandra Wilson, he never luxuriates in musical snobbism, appreciating all genres equally, and is remarkably skilled at reinterpreting contemporary pop hits. Twenty years ago, his earthy treatment of “Moondance” swapped the coy playfulness of Van Morrison’s original for overt sexual hunger. Since then, the 10-time Grammy winner has practiced comparable magic with the work of James Brown, Smokey Robinson and, most notably, Lennon and McCartney.

Such accomplishments are, however, a mere prologue to McFerrin’s otherworldly ability to communicate in a language uniquely his own. Consider, for instance, his cover version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” culled from the same album as “Don’t Worry,” in which McFerrin does an extraordinary job of replicating Clapton’s electric guitar riffs. Or witness the majesty of 1997’s Circlesongs, where he unites with 12 singers-three basses, three tenors, three altos and three sopranos-to craft eight improvisational rounds.

Actually, McFerrin’s remarkable gift for expressing complex sounds, themes and emotions without words has been evident as far back as his eponymous debut in 1982. Not until now, though, has that gift been the sole focus of an entire solo album. In less capable hands, Beyond Words would likely be perceived as self-indulgent posturing or experimentation merely for the sake of avant-gardism. With McFerrin at the helm, the CD emerges as an expertly navigated celebration of creative independence. It is, for the record, also the first of his albums on which he plays keyboards.

The 16-track set opens with “Invocation,” a word that, Oxford reminds us, refers to not only a call to God but also “an appeal to one’s muse for inspiration.” It unwinds as a hypnotic incantation then shifts midstream into a swooping, soaring salute to pure energy. Next, McFerrin embarks on a whirlwind world tour. The African overtones of “Kalimba Suite” are as bracing as they are seductive. “A Silken Road,” with its dusky Afro-Asian influences, evokes the trials and triumphs of Marco Polo’s continental trek. “Dervishes” suggests sunshine dappling the fast-flowing Ganges and “Fertile Field,” fresh as a Midwestern breeze and infused with the athleticism of wild horses, seems filled with endless possibilities.

Beyond Words then takes an abrupt right turn with “Sisters.” Perhaps I’m just letting the title lead my imagination, (which, come to think of it, might be precisely the point), but it sounds like a gaggle of nuns scurrying across a cool, shadowed path to morning vespers. Their voyage ends five tracks later with “Mass,” which effectively juxtaposes the emotional ascension of solitary prayer with the familiar comfort of shared ritual.

The remainder of the album is a mixed bag of delightful surprises. “Chanson” conjures up images of a predawn crawl through Montparnasse, suggesting both sweet, smoky memories of the night before and the dewy joy of a new day filled with promise. It is followed by four magical minutes that mark the album’s only nonoriginal material as McFerrin throws Chick Corea’s “Windows” wide open. “Marlowe,” presumably an homage to mystery writer Philip, opens with a subtle whiff of Mercer’s “Laura” then accelerates with the quickened pulse of anticipated risk and reward. “Taylor Made” is a lively interlude that showcases the budding talent of McFerrin’s son, Taylor, and offers hope that his dad’s musical gifts may be hereditary.

Next to closing, McFerrin manages an amazing duplication of Sting’s haunting, ethereal sound on “A Piece, A Chord” and, unless my ears deceive me, inserts a fleeting hint of the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” Finally, “Monks/The Shepherd” provides a chantlike coda that morphs into an escalating prayer, leaving the impression that McFerrin is making his rhythmic exit in search of new musical horizons.

These are, of course, just my impressions. Others will surely be led on equally rich but entirely different voyages. Such is the true magic of Bobby McFerrin. He is to music-all music-what IM Pei is to architecture or Jackson Pollock is to art or Julia Child is to food: a master of limitless imagination who refuses to be constricted by rules or confined by expectations. As a result, McFerrin provides every listener with the same priceless sense of freedom. After 40-odd years of experiencing everything from Nat Cole to Holly Cole, Beyond Words struck a chord with me that few discs ever have. Simply put, I wanted to crawl inside the album and live there.

Originally Published