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To some people, BOBBY MCFERRIN will always be the guy who sang “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” And he is that guy; he wrote and sang that global number-one hit more than 20 years ago. But if that song is all you know about Bobby McFerrin, we suggest the following: Go to YouTube, type in Bobby’s name, sit back, and prepare for a serious boggling of the mind.
You’ll join the millions who have marveled at Bobby’s stunning rendition of the Bach / Gounod Ave Maria. You’ll find Bobby’s shockingly inventive appearance on the NBC music program The Sing Off, his unparalleled interpretations of Beatles songs, his collaborations with everyone from cellist Yo-Yo Ma to pianist Chick Corea to comedian Robin Williams, and his condensed version of The Wizard of Oz. You’ll see him conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and consorting with the Muppets on Sesame Street. You’ll be awed by the way McFerrin brilliantly uses audience participation, most recently to demonstrate the power of the pentatonic scale at the World Science Festival in a performance that became a viral internet phenomenon, seen by over four million people. And that just scratches the surface.
Bobby McFerrin is an eternal seeker, always defying the music industry’s practical impulse to pigeonhole artists. VOCAbuLarieS (Emarcy/Decca Label Group/Universal Music Group International), his first new recording in eight years, harnesses all that wildly joyful creativity and searching musical curiosity. The culmination of all that McFerrin’s music has embodied thus far and simultaneously a bold step forward, VOCAbuLarieS is a collaboration with the composer/arranger/producer Roger Treece, a member of Bobby’s improvising vocal ensemble Voicestra.
Never a conventional artist, Bobby McFerrin was exposed to a multitude of musical genres during his youth – classical, R&B, jazz, pop, and world music – and all of them have since been absorbed and assimilated into his own unpremeditated art. “When you grow up with that hodgepodge of music, it just comes out. It was like growing up in a multilingual house,” he says. Bobby spent his earliest days as a professional musician in jazz and cabaret bands, and it wasn’t until age 27 that he experienced what he calls his “light-bulb moment” and realized that his true calling was singing.
A couple of short years later, Bobby was touring with the Hendricks Family. One night the audience included Linda Goldstein, a young singer who had opened a booking agency and was working with many legendary jazz musicians. On the night they met, Bobby performed a solo a cappella version of Joan Armatrading’s song Opportunity, singing the melody, outlining the harmony, and adding bass lines and percussion, all at the same time. Goldstein became Bobby’s manager and producer, helping McFerrin forge an unconventional path through the worlds of jazz, classical music, performance art, and the record industry.
McFerrin’s highly eclectic debut album was released in 1982. But it was 1984’s The Voice that first introduced Bobby’s unprecedented vision of the singer as a solo artist, and began to convey the atmosphere of sacred joy he created in concert. Bobby loved the freedom of solo performance, the ability to reach for any and every influence, follow every impulse. He was interested in experimentation and feedback from live audiences, and was reluctant to return to the recording studio. Goldstein suggested a live recording, and they began work on Spontaneous Inventions (1985), a compilation of improvised solos and collaborations with surprise guest artists from Robin Williams to Wayne Shorter, all recorded live for both audio and television. Spontaneous Inventions earned Bobby the first of his ten Grammy awards.
Bobby had long experimented with overdubbing, layering his voice in the studio. Simple Pleasures (1988) was the first recording to document the results. The smash hit single from that album, “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” made McFerrin a household name. But rather than capitalize on his success, McFerrin looked for new inspiration. He created Voicestra, explored collaborations with the classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma and jazz pianist Chick Corea, and began incorporating unexpected treasures like the Bach / Gounod Ave Maria into his repertoire. He decided, as a 40th-birthday present to himself, to take on the challenge of conducting. Since then he has led dozens of the world’s great orchestras.
Meanwhile, for the very first time in his career Bobby had a label hoping for a follow-up hit. With a generous recording budget, he experimented for months in the studio. The result, Medicine Music (1990), contained some lasting gems but didn’t sell many copies. Unexpectedly, his duo recording with Yo-Yo Ma, Hush (1991), became an international best-seller. Play (1992) and The Mozart Sessions (1996) document the chemistry between Bobby and Chick Corea, and Paper Music (1995) demonstrates the fantastic rapport between Bobby and the musicians of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
1997’s Circlesongs, a meditative masterwork comprised of eight spontaneous improvisations based on African and Middle Eastern traditions, provided some of the inspiration for VOCAbuLarieS. Beyond Words (2002) was a trans-global excursion through Asian, African, Middle-Eastern, and European influences, with accompaniment by Chick Corea, bassist Richard Bona, drummer Omar Hakim, and others. An incisive Bravo Channel documentary on Bobby, also entitled Beyond Words, was released in 2003 and is still available on DVD.
In music, time flies, styles unstoppably evolve, and bands come and go. But there are also rare, stable, forward-moving forces on the scene, with a prime example in jazz being the YELLOWJACKETS. As of 2011, this beloved eclectic, electro-acoustic jazz band that keyboardist Russell Ferrante and bassist Jimmy Haslip built celebrates the ripe young age of 30, a milestone commemorated by another powerful and heartfelt album, fittingly named Timeline.
In fact, Timeline (released March 2011) is a special occasion on more than just the 30th anniversary front; it is the first step in a new relationship with the respected jazz label Mack Avenue Records, and the first new album with an important alumnus back in the ranks, the dynamic and flexible drummer Will Kennedy. Kennedy, who worked with the group for ten years and appeared on half its discography to date, returns to the ranks after a dozen years away. He fits seamlessly into the band alongside Ferrante, Haslip, and the multi-talented saxophonist-composer Bob Mintzer, whose critical role in helping define the group’s current sound goes back to 1991.
For longtime Yellowjackets fans, the new album arrives as a confirmation and extension of the high expectations for this band. For new listeners, it’s an ideal introduction. Timeline is the band’s 21st official recording, not including special side projects and guest spots. The band’s background gleams with various honors, including 17 Grammy nominations and two Grammys to show for their efforts – so far.
As Haslip explains, “We get extremely engaged with every project and we try to elevate and open things up. That’s always the goal with every project. I’m not saying we always succeed. But the focus is to always try to do something that is hopefully engaging. And being that Russell, myself and the guys in the band have a certain chemistry.” He adds, with a laugh, “It’s not easy to accomplish this after 30 years.”
Musically, the terrain on Timeline is characteristically diverse but also cohesive, melodically accessible and also gently experimental, in keeping with the Jackets’ concept for three decades.
And roughly in the middle of it all comes the slinky, funky Ferrante-Haslip tune “Magnolia,” originally written during the time of the 2008 album Lifecycle, but coming fully to light here. And as it happens, that song becomes a great vehicle for another strong historical linkage in the band’s history, as guitarist Robben Ford makes a rare cameo on record, with a spicy wah-wah-fied guitar solo. This is Ford’s first appearance on a Yellowjackets album since 1994’s Run For Your Life, engaging in easy dialogue with the band he half-accidentally launched.
The Yellowjackets, as a unit, was actually assembled for Ford’s popular 1978 album Inside Story. Remembering back to the Inside Story project, Haslip laughs, “I wasn’t even 30 years old when we did that. I think I was 26 or 27. About a year later, in 1980 we got a deal with Warner, through Tommy LiPuma, to do an instrumental record! That was a really exciting moment, to actually realize that we had been signed by a major record label to do an instrumental project. Our first recording, Yellowjackets, was released in 1981.”
And from those humble, auspicious, and unforced beginnings grew the long and ongoing saga of one of jazz’ longest-lasting bands. Another early blast of affirmation came after they received a Grammy nomination for that 1981 debut album. “We never thought that could happen,” Haslip recalls. “We didn’t win, but just having a nomination was certainly a boost, a shot in the arm.”
Multiple chapters and subplots have wended through the band’s history, including the presence of more R&B-geared alto saxophonist Marc Russo for most of the ’80s, before Mintzer’s jazzier voice shifted the stylistic balance. Drummers have included Peter Erskine, for a brief and unfortunately unrecorded incarnation, a happy decade long stretch with Marcus Baylor, and Kennedy, then, now, and into the future.
For more information on the Yellowjackets, visit yellowjackets.com.