Bobby McFerrin is Back
I suggest that you don’t try to sing along while at work. This is infectious. You might disrupt the environment being too damn joyful before you hit the bars this evening.
This is called “The Power of the Pentatonic Scale,” filmed while he was a guest at the World Science Festival last year.
Bobby’s new show, VOCAbuLarieS, is having its world premiere in San Francisco on April 10 at The Masonic (where McFerrin gained his first fame as a stunning local talent). He’s touring this spring and summer at The Barbican in Britain, and in Germany. It is all part of his new recording of the same name which will be released April 6.
VOCAbuLarieS was imagined by McFerrin’s longtime manager and producer, Linda Goldstein. “There was Bobby, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, experimenting with multi-track recording, touring with his twelve voice improvising ensemble Voicestra, and performing his adventurous, pioneering solo show,” says Goldstein, “and I wanted to find an intersection of these pathways.” She envisioned a new kind of vocal ensemble music using extended compositional forms. Bobby’s inventive articulation, timbre, and phrasing would serve as a template, allowing singers to break free of choral conventions. “I was trying to harness the way Bobby takes ideas, sounds from all over the world and alchemizes them into a new language.”
To begin this experiment, Linda recruited Roger Treece, a classically trained composer/arranger and vocalist. Roger and Linda listened to hundreds of hours of Bobby’s wildly diverse archival recordings, searching for the finest threads of ideas. Over the seven years of writing, recording and editing VOCAbuLarieS, Treece “got a triple Ph.D. in Bobby McFerrinisms,” says Goldstein.
Treece found starting places for his compositions in the most interesting motifs from those recordings, and in classic songs from Bobby’s catalogue. “I set out to construct each piece with lots of twists and turns and modulations, like a page-turner or a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat,” says Treece, “but I also wanted to stay true to the loose, easy feel of Bobby’s singing, the joyful quality. What emerged was through-composed music that’s got groove.”
“It’s a very different project for me,” says McFerrin. “I’ve never worked so closely with another writer who could create around what I do. As an improviser, everything exists only in the moment, and then you let go of it. But in this context, Roger would hear something I did once, write it down and build the material into a fully scored theme and variations form, and then say, “Here, sing this.” It was old and new, mine and not mine. It was a challenge for me.”
Bobby and Roger enlisted members of Voicestra and fine vocalists from the worlds of jazz, opera, performance art, early music, cabaret, and rock and roll. Roger spent years in the studio recording Bobby and Grammy-winning recording artists like R&B singer Lisa Fischer, Brazilian jazz innovator Luciana Souza, Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer, and the stellar ensemble singers of New York Voices, editing and re-editing to design the right sound. The singers were recorded one at a time and in small groups to create a virtual choir made up of over 1,400 vocal tracks. Over the course of many years and over a thousand hours of studio time, the best performances were captured and sculpted into form. “The music emerged elegantly from the meticulous craftsmanship of Roger’s surgical recording and editing process,” says Goldstein. “Voices of different colors, types, and stylistic bents were joined to invent a new sound, inspired by Bobby McFerrin. The technique allowed us to combine studio R&B sound, classical choral blend, and African tribal chant. We melded them into a new amalgam, built up layer by layer.” The final mix required over 100 gigs of audio memory to house the enormity of the musical material: intricate, overwhelming, and yet vividly joyous.