HomeBobby McFerrin and his "VOCAbuLarieS": An Interview

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If you missed Bobby McFerrin’s appearance on “The Sing-Off”, do yourself a favor and watch it now. That NBC gave almost 4 minutes of expensive network time over to a vocal improv is extraordinary; that it was an improv lead by Bobby McFerrin made it transcendent. Surely, many new McFerrin fans were born that night, and as the man himself tells it, he got a lot more on-the-street recognition after that show aired. Those new fans now know what his established fans already knew: that this guy is a true artist, and one that keeps upping the game and outdoing even himself. From his hit “Don’t Worry Be Happy” (a song that still holds up, even 22 years later), to symphonic conducting, to penning and performing the theme song to “The Cosby Show” (a cappella!), McFerrin brings it, consistently. You also might have seen this video from the 2009 World Science Festival, where he demonstrates, in the most delightful way, the power of the pentatonic scale.

His newest project is called VOCAbuLarieS. Ambitious and several years in the making, this piece (both a live performance piece and a recording) premieres Saturday, April 10 in San Francisco as part of SFJazz’s “Soulful Singers” series. Special guests for this concert are the Pacific Mozart Ensemble, and attendees get to enjoy a post-concert talk with Mr. McFerrin! We recently interviewed him about this new piece and its upcoming US premiere:

Amy Malkoff: So, did Roger Treece (the major collaborator on this project) write all of this, sort of in the style of you, or were you part of the composition process as well?

Bobby McFerrin: It’s both. It’s both things. We spent a lot of time together and in order for him to write this, I thought it would be a good idea for him to become a member of Voicestra, because he also has a very nice bass voice. So he would listen and observe the languages that I come up with and how I develop circle pieces, and he tried as best as he could to capture the improvisational nature of the languages that I sang, or the sound of that language, and put that down on paper.

The part that I played in the compositional process was that he’d say, “I need to get from A to B, so I need you to improvise…so he would use me to come in and help develop ideas by coming in and improvising over some sections.

AM: How was (putting this piece together) this a challenge for you?

BM: Well, I’m not really a composer, and the challenge for me was stretching myself to work compositionally, which I must say, since working with Roger, I have even found my own solo shows…I’m finding that I’m learning to develop the improvisations that I come up on stage, that I make each note a beginning or an ending. It’s really been kind of an amazing journey for me because Roger spent a lot of time up in his head deciphering what I was doing, while I’m just floating along and watching things come out without thinking about it. So I spent more time down in my heart, I guess, and he spent a lot of time in his head, so that was kind of the working combination.

AM: So he became an academic of you, and fed it back to you?

BM: Right, and it was kind of interesting the way he’d interpret me. So he was sort of the interpreter and he wrote things down for other singers to get in my head, I guess.

AM: Very cool. Was it set out to be a recording and a live performance, or was it just going to be the recording?

BM: No, we always targeted this towards live performance, because whenever I would do a choral conference of some kind, everyone would say, “Well, when are you going to write something for choir, or our a cappella group?” And I’d think, “Yeah, that’s not a bad idea. I’d like to do that”. So, Roger came along...and we’ve been working on this for at least 6 years…

AM: Yeah, [the promo materials] say it took 7 years to write.

BM: Yeah, and another thing that was challenging to me was that I’d go into the studio and come up with like 40 ideas or Roger would have a section for me to sing that could be 2 bars or 22 bars and I’d sing over it and he’d say, “We got it”, and then 3 months later he’d say, “Well…we don’t have it.” So I’d go back and do 20 more bars. So that was a real challenge for me.

AM: So that’s why it took so long!

BM: Yeah, but you know, his brain is just so open to things that he would hear what I was doing and all of a sudden he’d hear something that would cause him to change directions. Instead of going up, he’d go down.

AM: So this will be commercially available, so other people can do it?

BM: Yes, that’s the point. We want other people to sing it. This album is not about, “Hey, look what I can do!” It’s about: here’s an opportunity for us to sing this music together and I really really am eager to work with vocal groups, a cappella groups, choirs, of all shapes and sizes, and this is like my invitation for everyone to come along and sing with me. I do that in concert anyway, with audiences, just spontaneously, but I never really had a chance – though I’ve been working with orchestras and conducting orchestras – I didn’t really get the chance to work with the choirs as much as I wanted to. I mean, I’m a singer, after all, and I wanted to work with them! So this is my way of saying, “Come on, let’s hang out. Let’s sing together”.

AM: What’s the difference between conducting a symphony orchestra, and conducting a choir in a non-choral manner, which is really what you’re talking about?

BM: Well, I don’t think I’d conduct a choir in a symphonic manner unless that means that I’ve got the score in front of me and at bar 32, I tell the sopranos that they’re singing too loud. Symphonic conducting is just something I happened into. Now singing, though, singing is completely different. I know singing. I grew up with one of the best baritone voices on the planet [his father]. I watched him teach, l listened to the things he had to say, I watched him study for roles…So I grew up with all these singers in the house and I know how to sing and tell singers what I want. I’m very confident in that world, and so I’m happy to get to spend some quality time with – I hope – a whole bunch of different groups.

AM: Have you performed VOCAbuLarieS for an audience yet?

BM: No, the first one is at the San Francisco Jazz Festival in April.

AM: Do you want to talk about “The Sing-Off”?

BM: It was interesting. I never spent any time in television-land, so I didn’t know how things were done. I had a good time, because I was just being asked to be myself, just do a circle song. Get the groups that are left involved and just do something with them, so I started off with a tune that I do called “Drive”, and then I went into a circle piece.

Well, at the rehearsal, they said, “Well, you’ve got up to 5 minutes. And then at the dress rehearsal, I had 4 minutes, and just as I’m walking out on stage for the actual performance, the guy says, “You’ve got 3 and a half minutes”, so ok, fine. I said, “Just put a clock somewhere where I can see it, and when I’ve got one minute left, just turn the clock on”, and we ended, I think, with one second left, or maybe got down to zero. But I was really happy with how it came out.

And I hope this opens the door for a cappella groups to get some notice. I thought the groups (on the show) were good, but there’s a lot more variety out there. So I’m hoping it’s an educational tool for people to hear and understand what a cappella music really is, the whole range of it, as much as TV is willing to allow. There are some wonderful groups out there that are mind-blowingly good, and you go, “Check that out!” And I’m so happy to hear these people. I’m so happy to be involved with any a cappella setting at all. Any choir, whether it’s high school, college, professional, whatever. I just love, love, love the sound of the human voice, and the things that it can do. What amazing colors the voice has! Think of all the languages the world has, and how many colors there are in these languages.

AM: Do you feel like you often have to educate people as to what a cappella is? I mean, you likely aren’t, because people understand that you’re sort of…beyond, but a lot of people who don't know what's out there think, “Well, it’s barbershop. The end”

BM: Sure. Well, in a way, I might be educating. I’ve started, instead of doing encores at my concerts, I’ve started opening it up to questions and answers for like 10 minutes, so that people get a chance to meet ME just as a person and not as a performer, so at the end of the concert, I’ll have them turn all the house lights up and I’ll just sit on the edge of the stage and answer questions. So I get a chance to tell them who I am, and why I love what I do so much, and how many dogs do I have, and how long have I been growing my dreadlocks.

AM: How many dogs DO you have?

BM: (laughs) I have two, and I’ve been growing my dreadlocks for 20 years. And I get all kinds of questions.

AM: Well, that’s very Carol Burnett of you!

BM: I think that’s where that idea comes from, because she would do that, yeah.

AM: Anything you want to say to the a cappella community in general to wrap it up?

BM: Music is here, music is now. That’s the thing that I try to instill in performers. I rebel against cookie cutter performances. I don’t like to hear the same things done the same ways, so I try to instill in everyone a non-performance attitude about things. People perform differently on stage, and they shouldn’t. They should sing the same way they do when they’re getting out of the shower or walking down the street. 

I strive for that. To get to where I’m not thinking, “This is the most important part of my day”. It’s not. It’s part of my day and I’ve been singing all day, so I want to sing the same way (on stage). So I just do that every day. It’s a daily discipline. I just sit and sing.

AM: So it’s totally integrated into everything.

BM: That’s right.

VOCAbuLarieS premieres Saturday, April 10, 2010 at 8pm

Presented by SFJazz
Nob Hill Masonic Center
1111 California Street (at Taylor)
San Francisco, CA
http://www.sfjazz.org/concerts/2010/spring/artists/mcferrin.php
866.920.5299

The ticket giveaway is closed; thanks to all who entered!

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Amy Malkoff: www.amymalkoff.com/harmony; Twitter: amalkoff