To call Bobby McFerrin a critically acclaimed recording artist is a bland, established fact. To call him a creative, engaging performer is better. To call the vocalist a singularly talented virtuoso still cannot completely capture the music that swirls once he takes the stage, but it’s pretty close. You could boil Bobby McFerrin down to trivia: collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. Or cite numbers: a Billboard number one single, ten grammys, twenty million copies and seemingly infinite praise or genres: jazz, pop, classical, gospel. But even the sum total of these elements could not hope to sum up the anticipation or the result that was his performance at Sanders Theater on Feb. 27.
His performance capped off in breathtaking, awe-inspiring artistry a four-day sojourn to Harvard campus sponsored by the Office for the Arts (OFA). During his visit, McFerrin appeared at a luncheon at the Institute of Politics and, as part of the OFA’s Learning from Performers series, worked with several campus arts groups that culminated in a performance on stage at Sanders. Working alone and in conjunction with groups from campus classical, dance, gospel and a cappella communities, McFerrin sung, vocalized and charmed his way into the hearts of his audience.
Simply put, McFerrin’s musical ability is absolutely stunning. He weds prodigious theoretical background to an impossibly eclectic knowledge of genres and an almost perfect instrument to an impish personality. He weaves a sonic experience this is merely unique on recordings but unparalleled in person. When singing solo, McFerrin leaps from rumbling, nearly sub-sonic depths to breathy, almost dog-whistle highs with alarming fluidity. He doesn’t need accompaniment, because he simultaneously functions as his own bass, treble and percussion sections all in one. To that alternately yodelling and resonant presence, he adds sound effects such as the leading edge of a storm, and a vaudevillian sense for a completely novel and theatrical musical experience.
His signature solo pieces featured in the first half, included his rendition of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” where he alternated the notes of Paul McCartney’s bass every other note with John Lennon’s guitar with literally pitch-perfect accuracy.
McFerrin’s crowning (and most crowd-pleasing) achievement, however, has always been his abridge medley performance of the film The Wizard of Oz. In just under ten minutes, he moved from Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” all the way to the death of the Wicked Witch of the West, capturing all the major details on the way. His ability to mimic the Munchkins and the Lollipop Guild perhaps doesn’t make for high art, but is a shining instance of his ability to conjure vast cohesive soundscapes using only his voice. During this performance, you could only marvel at the energy and manic zeal that goes into evoking and faithfully capturing the spirit of the original film in seven minutes. His wicked witch, right down to the laugh is a spine-tinglingly faithful recreation. It is, in a woefully inadequate word, breathtaking. And that’s just when he sings alone.
When McFerrin was underpinned by some of the campus’ musical groups, he revealed a different shade of his vocal talent. Instead of trying to imitate an entire strings section, he let the Baroque Chamber Orchestra assume that position in the evening’s first act, and occupied the position of imitating solo violinist, enlisting cellist Kate Bennet in an ethereally beautiful, if entirely unconventional duet. )
He similarly evoked muted trumpets and smooth saxophones with a jazz ensemble formed from the Harvard Monday Jazz band, creating a piercing breathy tonality that summoned legendary trumpeter Miles Davis on his composition “All Blues.” In these moments, McFerrin managed to supercede the novelty of his vocal texture and managed to shift the focus onto his mammoth musical mind. Fingering the microphone as if it were a stringed instrument, he made as much an homage to Davis’ improvisational ability as much as he did the legendary trumpeter’s trademark sound. Using sparse figures and sliding ethereal textures juxtaposed with pulsing bass growls, he seemed to push the other members of this impromptu sextet to a higher plane.
(In this mode, McFerrin emerged onstage as much as a loving pedagogue and mentor as he did an enterprising musician in his own right. He lent his talents to the Harvard Dancers, providing a soundtrack for small ensembles. McFerrin and the dancers seemed to mutually feed of each other’s thematic ideas for a captivating synergy of vocal and physical improvisation. The members of three a cappella groups the Veritones, the Pitches and the Din & Tonics could barely contain smiles as McFerrin worked his way into their individual songs, reaping the benefits of tutelage from a man whose musical interests most closely matched with their own.) Despite the obvious benefits gained by each group, McFerrin’s connection was most fully realized with the Brother’s and Sisters of Kuumba gospel singers. He disappeared for a time and later emerged wearing one of the brother’s stole, and appeared most moved by their music, with its unadulterated emotion and animated force.
His subversive instinct was evident from his bare feet upwards. McFerrin utilized his improvisational ability to twist classical music; Pachelbel’s “Canon” became a country and western hoe-down and received tumultuous audience response. He interjected his performances with parodied accents and hammy antics, demonstrating that pretension and talent need not be inextricably linked. While stage hands made one of many set changes, he, comically stern and stoic, played polytonal music to accompany, and pulled aside Jonathan Salz of the Sanders Theater production staff and staged an impromptu interview as he supervised the transition.
Above all, however, the most lasting impression of the “Evening with Bobby McFerrin” was his connection with the audience. Before the night’s final performance with the Brothers and Sisters, McFerrindescended into the audience and engaged in a series of intimate one-on-one performances with random spectators. Face to face, McFerrin would lay down a bass-line or other melodic theme, allow his unrehearsed partner to improvise, and then switch roles. In one action, McFerrin made the music accessible and approachable to all, and that is perhaps his greatest talent.