MUSIC: Bobby’s not your uncle

23 Mar

Bobby McFerrin – Live at Barbican (London), 03.03.13

US musician Bobby McFerrin is coming to London's Barbican in March 2013

Of all the variations on English forenames (with perhaps the exception of Richard) Robert surely provides the most absurd nicknames. Even the perplexingly common palindrome Bob is outdone by its vaguely puerile counterpart Bobby, and within the scale of earnest to ridiculous there seems to be a certain logic to those who acquire one or the other. Some were clearly destined to remain Roberts (Bobby Mugabe? I think not.) and likewise others were quite clearly never Robert-bound. From the moment Mr McFerrin enters the stage – with his characteristically unglamorous black t-shirt, dreadlocks and slight slouch – he is obviously of the latter variety. Despite conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (among others), the degree from Julliard, the Blue Note record deal and the 40-year jazz career, he never takes himself completely seriously. And it is precisely this open playfulness that characterises a Bobby McFerrin performance – founded upon the naturalness of his unquestionable musicality. It is also for this reason that the Barbican’s Sunday matinee was quite so child-friendly, with cupcakes and rustling snacks abound. Since cough-fascist Keith Jarrett played only a week prior up the river, the comparison is worth drawing, if only to prove how diverse jazz can be. And yet these two soloists’ artistic approaches are so very different that they call into question the definition of the genre itself.

Bobby strikes a peace signal, applauds his own band and the gentle lilt of African folk orchestration by longstanding collaborator Gil Goldstein soothes the audience with light, arpeggiated guitar riffs. Whether the opening songs’ imperfections were due to poor sound engineering, (self-confessed) lack of rehearsal, or simply a desire to maintain a certain rustic untidiness, is unclear. But regardless it established a sense of frayed beauty that placed us directly onto the dry clay terrain of an African village somewhere, where music was wafting from a backyard. With his show SpiritYouAll Bobby was taking us through the musical history of not only jazz, but also of his own father – the first African-American to sing at the New York Metropolitan Opera – who had recorded an album of spirituals. And this afternoon we were to watch the passing on of the oral tradition from father to daughter, Madison McFerrin’s embellishment of her father’s vocals offering soulful responses and rich harmonies.

All seated and scattered about the stage the musicians seemed to be producing sounds that were innate rather than learnt from score, a reflection of Bobby’s instinctive teaching style. A quick google of ‘Bobby McFerrin teaches’ will provide video evidence of his embodiment of music and his ability to relate this to a listener without verbal explanation. This Sunday afternoon in upright Britain he conducts the audience – with a simple hand gesture – into singing a melody that, if notated, would look considerably un-Western and rather complex. Then suddenly his call becomes a solo and he stops us, with a raised palm that is as direct as it is funny and we are listeners again, as his airy falsetto rises above the bass like a muted trumpet.

McFerrin personifies music and his rendition of the traditional ‘Jericho’ is as timeless as it is idiosyncratic. Without narration the set moves geographically towards America and chronologically towards the present day. His stage chat is warm and comedic rather than didactic, but this earns him the same respect as a beloved schoolteacher and under his creative spell we all become children.  On the blues tune ‘Fix Me’ drummer Ali Jackson beats with languid enjoyment, and his drag is never criticised nor even openly acknowledged, but remedied instead by an injection of energy from Bobby’s click on introducing ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’. An apt title, though McFerrin is no untouchable deity. He is the father that kisses his daughter on the head after she takes a solo, and the masterful communicator who passes the microphone to a well-chosen lady in the front row who sings a verse with passionate confidence. As the songs comes to a close, with a light ritardando father and daughter linger in harmony on an open ‘ooh’, giving fresh beauty and intimacy to a major third. But when the band leaves him alone on stage we hear his solo brilliance, evoking the 1984 album ‘The Voice’ and the body-as-instrument techniques with which McFerrin is most often associated. His fingers play imaginary valves on the microphone and beat percussion into his scats that move from simple phrases to ventures into the harmonic precision and eccentricity of a horn-player. From the inflections of a blues guitarist’s unintelligible murmurs, to a toddler’s exclamations, or the bending of a mouth organ, he reproduces sounds in a way that is both uncanny and intensely human.

The band follows his spontaneity, accepting requests and concocting a pastiche of ‘Carmina Burana’ and other scraps, with such ease that one is left wondering how much of the afternoon’s repertoire had really been planned. This music did indeed come from the spirit, and fulfilled one of jazz’s traditional features – spontaneous, group composition. He made music a game not a riddle. Bobby said backwards is be-bop, but Bob’s not your uncle, he’s Mr McFerrin to you. The one who made you fall in love with music when he first started jumping around singing a pentatonic scale.


MUSIC: Mister Barrington and the 6 irises

23 Mar


Mister Barrington – Live at Charlie Wright’s


At the last smash of a perforated cymbal and the final silencing of an electronic hum, the lights at Charlie Wright’s rose up on the six pupils and six irises of Mister Barrington’s three band members. A maniacal world of free-math-post-jazz-funk swiftly metamorphosed into a surreal DJ set of pure disco, while the brain tried to readjust. In the house lights the rather diminutive audience re-emerged blinking and shuffling. This was clearly not the sort of mind (and body) assault at the top of London’s list for a Saturday night, and yet ironically it was a series of dance beats that structured the largely meter-less narrative of the set. The triptych of instrumentalists featured drummer Zach Danziger as the centrepiece – on an illuminated white enamel kit – with bassist Owen Biddle and vocalist/keyboard player Oli Rockberger on either side, communicating with each other at the speed of an American highway.

“Keep the noise down,” joked the nervy London-born Rockberger, as the band settled onto the stage and the crowd began a nervous chorus of ironic whoops and sound effects to welcome them. This British expression of apology and embarrassment for such a poor show was the last moment of timidity in the room. There was no introductory word from Danziger, simply a first crack of the snare that signified the audience and musicians would be led by his wrists and almost demented focus. He began with a triumphant explosion worthy of a final solo, setting the tone for a set that only halted once for a 15-minute breather, and was otherwise a continuous climax.

Biddle remained remarkably calm and entranced throughout the set, a necessary antidote – if only aesthetically – for the audience who may otherwise have hyperventilated. Rockberger is a one-man hybrid of Casey Benjamin and Robert Glasper, whose hysterically expressive face and body were the human manifestation of his synth effects. Transfixing in his intensity, though at times repetitive in his tone, he provided the melodies that suggested form. But these were only hints at what seemed like refrains, but never actually reappeared. Was this a battlefield of man versus machine? Jazz versus dance-pop? Without taking the analogy to morbid proportions, the force of the drummer at the helm did seem to charge through a New York City landscape, breaking down the doors of clubs and trampling and destroying everything within.

Measured debate was clearly never their intention and this musical diatribe was a feat of energy, stamina and creativity: a potentially dogmatic protest piece that shattered eardrums, and left the heart disturbed and beating arhythmically.

Mister Barrington online:


25 Dec

It’s a ball, it’s a cyst

It’s a muscle contracting like fingers to fist

And it waits,

Its potential

Explosive like laughter

Or angry intention

Your body, a tunnel

A funnel for shuttling cystic emotion

Need music

Need dancing

Need running

Need screaming

Need crying

Need scrawling

So be like your blood when inhaling

On mountains the places where vessels are pulsing

And gaping

Exploding like fountains

Expression: releasing interior pressure that’s lurking

Inspire: the grasping of air so that gasping is living

And breathing is loving, as tension’s escaping

Not lingering, turning your passion to hating

Free dem

23 Sep

Freedom is not a total swaying

it is not a single particle roaming

it is not uprooted improvisation

Freedom is not a formless smudge

it’s not feedback

nor open space

Freedom is the space in between

it’s the wife of the line

Freedom is the spring off the beam

or escaping from time

as we built it

to rely upon being free from it

The 1 and 2 and 3 and 4

But they missold us our freedom

And left us swaying slaves.

The unattractive male default

15 Sep

A wikipedia introduction to Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ begins:

“In his essay, Barthes argues against the method of reading and criticism that relies on aspects of the author’s identity — her political views, historical context, religion, ethnicity, psychology, or other biographical or personal attributes — to distill meaning from the author’s work.” (my emphasis)

To place the female third-person pronoun here in bold AND italics is an act of tautology. Not only in the luxurious use of two modes of emphatic typefacing, but simply because she stands out automatically, that pronoun. She is no default. She is the sort of pronoun closer to a noun. She has breasts (large, jiggling, voluptuous beauties, or pert, silky mammories of elegance). She has a cunt, a pussy, a vagina…a clitoris! She has a womb. A woooooommmm. She jumps out of an objective phrase just as a lady strides into the train carriage, upright, in heels perhaps.  No doubt the wikipedia contributor was one of those feminist types. A radical standing up for the value of the female. But perhaps they chose the wrong site for their exhibition.

Let’s correct the sentence and replace that pronoun with the usual male usage:

“In his essay, Barthes argues against the method of reading and criticism that relies on aspects of the author’s identity — his political views, historical context, religion, ethnicity, psychology, or other biographical or personal attributes — to distill meaning from the author’s work.”

The pronoun performs his/its function and substitutes the noun. Suddenly this author; his identity, his political views, his historical context, his religion, his etc. and his etc. becomes generic. He is neutral. He is the grey, bland, usual default. He is just an example. An e.g.. The poor objective ‘he’ fighting for his idiosyncrasy…

Oh please ladies, let us reserve the powerful ‘she’ for a special occasion and fight to be extraordinary, not ordinary.

Death of the author. Vive la femme!


Industrial Revolution

6 Jun

one of Heidi Heidelberg’s ironic ditties to adorn the economic depression

Industrial Revolution

We’re gonna pack up our things, go Australia

We’re running away to where the weather is better

Live for the day down in Africa!

We had our revolution

Industrial revolution

Now I’m going blind

Can’t see a thing

Because I spent all my days in front of a screen

Skin’s getting thin

I aint got no vitamins

a-min, I’m in…I’m getting out!

We’re gonna pack up our things, go Australia

We’re running away to where the weather is better

Live for the day down in Africa!

Now I can’t see earth under my feet

Because I’m walking along, along the concrete

You tell me to be green, but you give me grey

Saying “Carpe diem!” (live for your pay)

Now I’m getting away!

Nice little country we’ve all got degrees

And when we grow up we’ll be secretaries

Typing for a company that made itself a job

Just to sell its useless services to other pointless knobs!

We’re gonna pack up our things, go Australia

We’re running away to where the weather is better

Live for the day down in Africa!


I Want it Now

6 Jun

one of Heidi Heidelberg’s ironic ditties to adorn the economic depression

I Want it Now

I want it now

As soon as it’s heated

My ham ‘n’ cheese panini

Yeah, I just wanna eat it

Don’t need no fancy garnish

I just want my snack

‘Cause my lunchbreak’s nearly over

And I’ve got to get back

I’ll eat it pretty bloody fast

And wash it down with fanta

Go back to my desk

And have some quality banter

Then I’ll waste my day away

Playing internet games

Deal with boredom in phases

Until I get paid

I want it now, now, now (x4)

Don’t make me wait for it

I want it now

As soon as you’re naked

Approximately 50 thrusts

Could make us a baby

Or just go down to the pharmacy

And pick up a pill

You take it in the morning

So the chances are nil

And you can do it again

Just like you’re eating your chips

A moment in the mouth

And a lifetime on your hips

I want it now, now, now (x4)

Don’t make me wait for it

Not so long ago

We had no internet and no iPhone

Now my attention span’s about as long as this song

I’ve got a 4/4 rhythm and a ii-V-I

And if they play it on the radio it’ll be number 1

I want it now, now, now (x4)

Don’t make me wait for it