Bobby McFerrin goes beyond words

Meet Bobby McFerrin, self-proclaimed "hunter-gatherer" of musical ideas.

The 10-time Grammy Award winner is a musician who knows how to use all the keys, black and white, and others that haven't made it onto the keyboard yet.

A superb and inventive jazz vocalist, composer, and arranger, he also enjoys classical music, including conducting symphony orchestras. Not a denizen of the pop charts, he did make one indelible dent in the world's pop-culture consciousness in the 1980s with the (some would say annoyingly) upbeat ditty "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

In recent months, he'd been trying to compose an opera. But it stubbornly refused to be written.

"In the process of working on the opera, I had collected a few hundred [musical] ideas," he told me in a phone conversation last week. The "ideas" were short bits of vocalizing done in the attic studio of his home in Minnesota, which lacks both soundproofing and high-quality recording equipment ("My daughter could just open up the door and say, 'Dad, dinnertime.' ")

As a composer, he had been used to sitting down and waiting for the musical muse to visit. Now, the muse wasn't cooperating.

So McFerrin tried something radical. Each day, he would go to the attic for four hours with one goal: Record a new musical "idea" every 30 minutes. Day after day. Eight ideas a day. "It didn't matter whether I liked [the ideas] or not," he says.

When the opera was shelved, he realized the best of these recorded bits could make an album.

"This is my first album in five years, and it's actually my favorite of all the ones I've done," he says. "And it's because not even the thought of an album came into my mind ... it's probably the freest experience I've ever had recording or making music – period."

Listen to "Beyond Words" (Blue Note/Angel), just out this week, and you hear influences from all over the world: Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, as well as his own roots in jazz and American music. The singing is pure, joyous vocalizing without recognizable words.

McFerrin's four-octave vocal range is legendary, but he doesn't have a scholar's interest in the wonders of the human voice. He was once sent a doctoral dissertation that analyzed one of his compositions. He found it interesting, but "I don't think about these things as I'm creating [a piece]." Ask him point-blank why people seem drawn to the human voice singing, and he replies, "The parents of all instruments are the drum and the voice. I think it might harken back to that."

What he prizes, clearly, is music that comes from the heart, not from the need to crank out another hit. "To do something that is completely untouched by the industry, or industrial thinking at all, to me [that] is something that is completely authentic," he says.

That's why he "was very, very happy" to hear that "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" won a Grammy this year as best album. "That music is so wonderful. I love that music ... very spiritual. Just great, great, great stuff."

While McFerrin has wandered all over the musical landscape in his three-decade career, he doesn't see crossovers between genres as becoming more common.

"In the late '60s and early '70s, I saw a lot of barriers coming down," he says. "Like Moody Blues using [a symphony orchestra] ... The [Rolling] Stones using choruses. And all the third-world element coming into it, with the Beatles bringing in the music of India. And there was all this musical dialogue going on. It was a wonderful time to be a music student, I thought."

Today, he says, music seems more "segregated."

"When I was growing up, on Top 40 radio you heard everything – you heard rhythm and blues, you heard soul, you heard rock, you heard movie themes, you heard Latin music," he recalls. "In an hour, you could hear Sergio Mendez and Brazil 66, and then you'd hear Ray Charles; you'd hear James Brown, you'd hear Stevie Wonder, Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, Proco Harem, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. There was so much different music on the same doggone radio station.

"Nowadays, you turn on one station, and everything is the same tempo. Everyone sounds the same."

And should traditional European classical music meet pop? "Why not?" he says. "I think they certainly should [meet]. I think an opportunity to get together and do some experimentation is a really good thing."

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