Songs of faith and freedom
Bobby McFerrin charts new, more−personal territory with “spirityouall.”
By Naila Francis
Bobby McFerrin couldn’t settle on only one.
For years, the 10−time Grammy Award−winning vocalist had been pondering multiple possibilities in his head. They knocked about as he conducted orchestras, hosted documentaries, collaborated with the likes of Chick Corea and Yo−Yo Ma and led his 12−piece a cappella ensemble Voicestra through programs of purely improvised music.
Even as he spent seven years working on “VOCAbuLarieS,” his 2010 album featuring 1,400 vocal tracks recorded by more than 50 singers in multiple languages, he toyed with what would be next.
“I had an idea that someday I’d do an album as a tribute to my dad. I also had a completely separate idea that I’d do an American folk/rock/blues album, acknowledging my love of Eric Clapton and Taj Mahal and James Taylor. I also had an idea that someday I’d make an album that spoke more directly to my faith,” says McFerrin. “Those three ideas converged, and then it all made sense.”
The result is “spirityouall,” a jubilant and tender celebration of faith that interprets traditional African−American spirituals as only McFerrin can. The playful and inventive singer brings his signature improvisation, and an expansive palette of bluegrass, folk, jazz and country, to seven devotionals and five originals, exploring themes of protest, liberation, renewal and transformation. He includes three classics featured on the late Robert McFerrin Sr.’s 1956 album “Deep River” − “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” “Fix Me Jesus” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” − as well as a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”
The troubadour’s 1967 paean for a redeemed prisoner may seem an unlikely choice, but when album co−producer Gil Goldstein wrote a beautiful new arrangement for it − manager and producer Linda Goldstein (no relation to Gil) first suggested the song − McFerrin knew it had to be included.
“The song just spoke to me. I remembered the lyrics from when I first heard it,” he says. “I didn’t even want to listen to Dylan’s version. I was afraid it would be too strong and that I wouldn’t be able to find my own relationship to the song. I still think maybe I’m singing part of the melody wrong.”
Tackling the songs rendered by his dad was even more initially daunting. The elder McFerrin, a renowned baritone, became a celebrated interpreter of the American Negro spiritual under the tutelage of Hall Johnson, the African−American classical composer and choir director who elevated the devotional to a serious art form through concert hall performances.
McFerrin can recall Johnson coming to the family’s home in New York City when he was 10 to teach his dad the spirituals.
“For a long time, I could hear my father singing them in my head, but I couldn’t find my own way to the songs,” he says, of McFerrin Sr., who also was the first African−American to sing a title role with the Metropolitan Opera Company − Verdi’s “Rigoletto” − and later dubbed Sidney Poitier’s singing voice as Porgy in the 1959 film adaptation of “Porgy and Bess.” “Then it was time.
“I tried to integrate my own style and approach with my reverence for this music and my respect for it. I think Hall Johnson said that the music was always serious even at its most joyful, and I don’t disagree with that. But part of what this music shows us so vividly is how to remain joyful even through times of struggle and indignity.”
That he effortlessly embodies that joy onstage seems befitting the man who rocketed into the spotlight in 1988 with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Yet for all his exuberance in performing, he maintains he’s a singer sharing his art from a place of sacred peace.
“I invite people into the very quiet, private place where I make music,” says McFerrin, who appears Sunday at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia. “And making music makes me really happy, so often there’s energy and joy and playfulness. But I try to come to the stage the way I would walk into my kitchen and sing and goof around with my family.”
That cheerful a cappella hit may have introduced the world to his vocal wizardry, but McFerrin never expected he’d be bringing such solo excursions to the stage. After singing with the Episcopal church choir as a boy and studying both piano and clarinet, he started his professional music career at 14 as a pianist. His penchant for spontaneous creativity was inspired by Keith Jarrett’s pioneering solo piano improvisations.
“I was already improvising and listening to great improvisers,” he says of his early days as a musician. “But it wasn’t till I was 27 that I decided I was really a singer after all. It was kind of a moment of revelation. And right in that moment, I knew what I wanted to explore, what I was hearing. It took a long time to be able to sing what I heard, but it was already there.”
It would take six years in fact for him to perfect the virtuoso one−man−band technique he brought to his first solo concert in 1983. But with “spirityouall,” he’s finding as much freedom in set lyrics as he is in wordless wonder.
“For years, I felt like when I sang melodies without words, it meant even more, that I could speak to people in a language beyond words, and everyone could hear what they needed to hear. What’s great about these songs is that there’s a lot of repetition, a lot of saying the same words over and over until they become pure sounds, and you can hear on the album and the live videos that I’m moving back and forth between lyrics and wordless lines very easily, letting it all come together,” says McFerrin.
“I think that will stay with me after this project, the idea of singing linear, written lyrics − and still feeling really free.”
– The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times