Bobby McFerrin’s VOCAbuLaries brings his vocal explorations to new heightsThursday, June 24, 2010
The human voice as never before
By Miguel Bronfman
For the Herald
Universal Records has just released in the local market singer Bobby Mc Ferrin’s latest album –his first release in eight years, VOCAbuLaries, a formidable, magnificent album in which vocal music is taken up and lifted into a new, brilliant and surprising, amazing sphere.
Born in the US in 1950, McFerrin has always been an incredibly innovative singer, drawing influences from an array of musical fields such as classical music, Rhythm & Blues, reggae, pop, gospel, blues, and of course, jazz, melting them all into an original and incomparable style that is way beyond any possible definition or categorization. His world-wide fame came in 1988 with the release of the catchy hit Don’t Worry, Be Happy, a pop reggae, calypso-ish entirely a cappella tune in which he overdubbed all the vocal parts and percussive sounds (made by hitting his body with his hands) all by himself. With that tune –still used, for example, in TV commercials– McFerrin got to be known all around the globe. But he has always been much more than that effusive and humorous singer with a smile tattooed on his face, as this new album confirms.
In fact, a quick look into his vast discography –with which he has already won 10 Grammy Awards–, reveals a never-resting artist, always in search of new challenges. His album in duet with pianist Chick Corea (Play, 1992), for example, in which they rendered jazz standards such as Round Midnight and Blue Bossa along with the adagio from Joaquin Rodrigo’s Aranjuez Concert in a free, improvised style, exposed McFerrin’s improvisational vocal mastery at large, along with one of the most accomplished jazz pianists of all time. He also paired his talent with the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma in the celebrated album Hush, where they delivered popular and jazz pieces and music by classic composers such as Vivaldi or Bach.
Now, VOCAbuLaries is presented as McFerrin music for the 21st century, and he indeed surprises everybody with an album that is unlike anything he has ever recorded before. Though this new work clearly bears the mark of its predecessors and McFerrin’s inimitable style, it also brings forward, with the help of technology, a fresh and original constellation of vocal music.
Recorded and mixed over a seven-year period, VOCAbuLarieS is the consummated result of McFerrin’s life-long experiments with multi-track recording and his creative explorations of the potential of the human voice. In collaboration with composer/arranger/producer Roger Treece, the album features over 50 different singers, recorded one at a time and in small groups to create a virtual choir made up of over 1,400 vocal tracks. While McFerrin’s magical voice, his endless range and at times pyrotechnic improvisation skills shine through, this time his melodic ideas and improvised singing are taken and developed into sophisticated compositions, with harmonic and rhythmic complexities that create unprecedented choral timbres and sounds.
This virtual choir, besides, was formed by singers brought together from different genres and nationalities, and so we find elements of Eastern European, Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Western classical music, along with choral-sacred echoes, African rhythms and some tinges of pop effusiveness. Odd meters, exotic percussion (played by percussionist Alex Acuña) and lyrics sung in the most varied –and strange– tongues, such as Latin, Italian, Sanskrit, Mandarin, Japanese, French, Arabic, Hebrew, English and Gaelic, give form to this collection of strange, moving songs, building up, in short, a unique masterpiece.
As the reader might assume by now, VOCAbuLaries is the typical case in which words come short to describe the music, and where the listening experience becomes simply essential, necessary. Just one last comment, however: despite the seriousness of this work, the complexity of both the music and the process, listening to it is just a joyful, unique and truly rewarding experience. As always, McFerrin plays with the music, and his message of universality and communion is plainly accessible and soulfully inviting.
Don’t miss it.