McFerrin Walks Many Musical Paths
BOSTON — THE mark of a fertile imagination is a willingness to venture down new paths. It's a frame of mind that constantly asks, "Why not?"
In the pop music industry, it's rare to find an artist who freely jumps back and forth between musical genres, regularly experiments, and follows intuitions with abandon. Not to mention letting the public in on it.
That's why singer Bobby McFerrin is such a refreshing sight in these days of calculated celebrity-making. The nine-time Grammy Award winner, famous for his a cappella pyrotechnics, steps into the shoes of classical orchestra conductor as unabashedly as he does of composer or be-bop singer. His very career seems improvised.
Though Mr. McFerrin had a healthy solo singing career throughout the 1980s, his popularity soared in 1988 with his album "Simple Pleasures" and its hit single "Don't Worry, Be Happy," which seemed to ingrain its snappy melody mercilessly on the collective popular consciousness.
Today he can be seen traveling around the United States with his vocal ensemble called Voicestra, a 10-member group of similarly offbeat singers who don't mind dipping into J.S. Bach any more than into rap. McFerrin acts as mentor, composer, and conductor - though the group is so self-propelled and spontaneous he's never in the limelight long. Many of the songs performed by the group on its recent tour were McFerrin originals from his 1990 album "Medicine Music" (EMI).
"There certainly is a tendency to spend your musical life in one room of your musical house," McFerrin says in a phone interview.
"But I don't spend all my time in the bathroom or the kitchen. As a group, we explore the full musical house."
Apart from his vocal jousts with the members of Voicestra, McFerrin collaborates with other free-spirited artists. Late January saw the release of the label-defying album "Hush" (Sony Masterworks), in which he and cellist Yo-Yo Ma team up on McFerrin's compositions and classical pieces by Bach, Rachmaninoff, and Rimsky-Korsakoff.
Also released in January was a live Carnegie Hall concert by McFerrin with jazz pianist Chick Corea (Blue Note Records). On the album "Play," the vocal/piano duo pulls off elaborate expansions on jazz standards as well as some funny musical parodies (a McFerrin trademark).
BUT perhaps the most intriguing aspect of McFerrin's career is his stints as guest conductor with symphony orchestras. During the past several summers, he has studied conducting with Gustav Meier and other faculty at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Mass., satisfying a passion for classical music he's had since boyhood. His father was the first black male singer to appear at the Metropolitan Opera, and his mother is also a singer and teacher of singing.
"It was a classical music house," McFerrin says of his growing-up years. Delving into conducting now "seems like going home."
"I like the whole idea of musicmaking with others," no matter what form it takes, he continues. "So far, the most abandon I feel is when I'm conducting. I think it's because I'm standing there with all this music coming at me ... and the idea of singing through my hands or through my body. Conducting forces you to emanate sound in another way - through other musicians."
Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Bizet's "March of the Toreadors" from "Carmen," and Faurs "Pavane" (Op. 50) are among the many works he has conducted on "pops" programs for such groups as the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony, and the San Francisco Symphony.
A New York Times review described his conducting technique as "intuitive rather than schooled" and that "his musicianship was remarkable on any side of the musical street."
Classical music's staunch traditions don't prevent him from tapping his improvisational skills, either. During orchestra rehearsals, the musicians might ask him how he wants them to perform a certain passage of music.
"I say 'I don't know!' " McFerrin says. "I know that goes against conducting wisdom. I say 'you're going to have to watch me and perform it.' So their attention is a bit different. I'm a spontaneous guy and I like things to be fresh. It keeps me on my toes to have that window of uncertainty."
At a recent concert of Voicestra here, McFerrin and his gang threw the audience for some loops that only they could get away with. While most of the show centered on a cappella renditions of gospel, Afro-pop, and jazz tunes, Voicestra members - who come from classical, pop, and theater backgrounds - also performed dramatic vignettes and hilarious "improvs" based on audience suggestions.
Many of the numbers had a strong spiritual emphasis (McFerrin is deeply religious). Yet the group also sported a sense of playfulness and a fearless "go for it" approach to the unrehearsed portions of the concert.
"I like to work with people who haven't lost that sense of childlike fascination with themselves musically," McFerrin explains.
Not surprisingly, he admires their "sense of curiosity and a sense of being abandoned toward their work."