Bobby McFerrin – Live at Barbican (London), 03.03.13
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.