Within the traditional lexicon of performing arts, the human voice is officially categorized as an instrument. While this serves as the formal classification, rarely are vocals perceived to be nearly as instrument-like as in the work of an artist such as Bobby McFerrin. As a vocalist, McFerrin approaches the musical process in a structurally complex manner beyond that of most singers. A career champion of the a cappella style, his inclusion of percussive elements in his performances with rhythmic chest thumping largely defines McFerrin’s technique. The method by which he dazzles audiences with vocal acrobatics however is not a gimmick, but the result of tireless devotion to understanding counterpoint, voice leading, and standard repertoire across many genres.
Though he is most widely recognized for his commercial hit, Don’t Worry Be Happy, McFerrin is well versed in several types of music, including jazz. His proficiency with jazz repertoire is demonstrated in performances of Another Night in Tunisia, A-Train and even an impromptu live performance of Round Midnight with Chick Corea. Traditional classical training is evident in his rendition of Bach’s Air, and his ability to maintain the simplicity of music’s intent is unmistakable in his collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma on Hush Little Baby. Yet, despite McFerrin’s stylistic versatility, it is the prodigious nature of his solo performances that fully showcases his genius. Often creating an ensemble of up to four elements (bass, drums, rhythm section and lead) with just his voice and signature chest-slapping syncopations, McFerrin’s unique method of creating music is quite literally unparalleled.
His latest project, VOCAbuLarieS, features diverse instrumentation with thicker-than-normal textures, yet maintains multi-layered vocals as the main focus (with the latter of course being an orthodox theme in McFerrin’s arrangements). The featured track, Say Ladeo, continues the exploration of indigenous harmonies and the quest for spiritual inner-peace that has permeated McFerrin’s career. It is this very pursuit of knowledge and expression which makes McFerrin and his music so intriguing. Whether he is leading an audience through the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, or highlighting the inherent ability of humans to instinctually realize pentatonic scales through collective consciousness, McFerrin is an artist who consistantly reaches out for a greater understanding of existence. He is selfless in his pursuit, and shares his discoveries willingly. Bobby McFerrin is an artist who has unquestionably taken no shortcuts en route to musical brilliance.