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January 25, 2005

Bobby McFerrin has every reason to be happy

Denver Post (CO):

Demember 1988? That was the year Bobby McFerrin's bouncy "Don't Worry, Be Happy" skyrocketed the multitalented a cappella artist to international musical celebrity. But the 10-time Grammy Award winner is anything but a one-hit wonder. This week, in four solo performances from Fort Collins to Denver, the "Stimmwunder" (wonder voice) - so-called by German critics - will bring his innovative improv to Colorado.

"What I perform is up for grabs," said McFerrin from his home in Philadelphia. "I just walk onstage and see what happens. A lot of it depends on the vibe I get from the audience. "The audience is like my instrument. It's not just me up there, it's collaborative." Thanks to his bottomless talent, this lack of preparation and planning doesn't spell disaster. Instead, McFerrin's whimsical, on-the-spot renditions of popular and original songs, not to mention his seemingly superhuman ability to produce a range of rhythms and tones with his body, captivate sold-out audiences worldwide.

While McFerrin's crossover appeal defies categorization, his capacity to constantly redefine vocal jazz in new or unexpected contexts is perhaps his single most meaningful contribution to the genre. An example is his invention of the "voicestra," his term for a vocal orchestra.

An inspired jazz vocalist with a four-octave range, McFerrin was raised by classical musicians. "My dad (Robert McFerrin Sr.)(CQ) was the first African-American opera singer at the Met," he said. "And when I was in school, there were music programs. Maybe once or twice a month, we'd even go sing in a choir or learn a dance. "Music was all around me, at home and at school."

But the state of today's music education worries him. "Music programs are one thing that the public school system could do to open kids up to creativity," said McFerrin, who started learning music theory at age 6 and studied piano during his high school years in Los Angeles. "But now, there are hardly any music programs except in some private schools. "If I had my way, when kids have their heads in their books studying history, I'd say, 'Put your pencils down and follow me.' And we'd have jam sessions and do anything to get them familiar with all kinds of music - Bach, Mozart, James Brown, Duke Ellington.

"It's a matter of integrating music into every other area of life, so that it's familiar, not a foreign language," he said. "Pretty soon, experiencing different kinds of music is as comfortable as walking through different rooms in the same house." It's just that kind of musical upbringing that nurtured McFerrin's artistic versatility. "There were never any lines between classical and jazz in my home," said McFerrin, who also is a composer and conductor. "I heard Beethoven alongside Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Janis Joplin."

And then there was radio. "In the '60s, when the Beatles brought the music of India back to the U.S., suddenly the radio was full of that exotic influence," said McFerrin, 55, whose "Simple Pleasures" album is a tribute to that period. "The Top 40 music of the '60s was a little of everything. You'd hear music from Africa or salsa or rock. "But radio today is very segregated," he said. "Hip-hop on one station. Jazz on another. Classical on another. And world music on yet another. I don't like that."

Something else that McFerrin doesn't like is publicity, and all that it implies. He limits interview times. Family is important to him. In the wake of recording "Don't Worry," he went against conventional wisdom and decided not to tour the song. Instead, he stayed home for more than a year with his wife and three children, now ages 13, 19 and 23. Such retreats clearly aren't to the detriment of McFerrin's career. His recordings have sold more than 20 million copies, he's in hot demand as an educator and performer, and he frequently collaborates with other creative luminaries, from Wynton Marsalis, Yo-Yo Ma, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Jon Hendricks to comedians Robin Williams and Billy Crystal.

The Los Angeles Times sums up the musical voyager this way: "The hyperkinetic, superpersonable, wide-ranging singer, scion of a family of musicians, does more than vocalize, conduct and produce music. He lives it." Busy as he is, McFerrin says another timeout is on the horizon. "In September this year, I'm taking a sabbatical," he said. "I haven't done that in about 15 years. I just want to stay home and write music for a while."

Posted by acapnews at January 25, 2005 12:22 AM