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September 13, 2004

Contra Costa Times

For Bobby McFerrin, the journey to Zellerbach Hall began with a simple lapse of memory. The master of vocal improvisation, who opens Cal Performances' 2004-2005 season on Saturday, was an unknown singer with an experimental bent in 1980, when he was honing his jazz chops at the Cheshire Cat, a little San Francisco club on Haight Street. He had recently moved to the Bay Area from New Orleans, and was performing with a quartet led by pianist Paul Nagel. Though long fascinated by improvisation, McFerrin was still working in a relatively safe setting and relying upon written arrangements when he seized an unexpected opportunity for spontaneous musical creation.

"I can remember very distinctly one night leaving for the gig and discovering when we were halfway there that I had left all of my charts," said McFerrin, 54. "One of the band members said, 'We can go back,' and I said, 'No, let's not. Let's take this opportunity to really improvise, play whatever comes off the top of our heads and see what happens that way.' That was really the beginning of my improvisational life. That evening gave me the go-ahead to dive right into it."

"The audience is my instrument," McFerrin said. "They're there and I like to use them, to incorporate them in these improvisational journeys that I take. They might come across some musical motif that I want sustained so that I can take off on musical tangents, so I invite the audience to act as my band."

There's probably no place where McFerrin's unorthodox vocal techniques have taken root more deeply than the Bay Area. For one thing, the members of his a cappella ensemble Voicestra mostly live in the area, and have spun off various groups -- most notably SoVoSo, an a cappella group that has featured Rhiannon, Joey Blake and David Worm. San Francisco is also where McFerrin made all of his most important musical breakthroughs.

In recent years, McFerrin has put most of his energy into his solo performances and his conducting career. His recording output has slowed considerably, as he's been working for three years on an album of his original choral works, in collaboration with arranger Roger Treece. "My goal, whether it's improvised or the printed page, is to find the heart of the piece, the heart of the moment," McFerrin said. "You can find it so many different kinds of ways. There are many fabulous musicians who don't work away from the printed page -- all they want to do is play Mozart piano concertos or Bach sonatas. And then there are musicians who are not interested in reading music. They just want to express themselves through improvisation."

Posted by acapnews at September 13, 2004 11:41 AM