Review: new Bobby McFerrin CD

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[Many thanks to Reese Dickerson for lending me this CD, and letting me keep it for several weeks even though it was on heavy rotation in his car, alongside the new Rob Roy, which I also borrowed!]

Bobby McFerrin—VOCAbularies (EmArcy)

 

Bobby McFerrin is a perfect example of a musician who’s so good, he’s almost too good for his own good. The veteran vocalist is best known for his instant-classic relaxation anthem “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, a song that is immediately recognizable and widely adored around the world. His massive crossover success with that tune (and its seminal video, featuring master performers Robin Williams and Bill Irwin) was never approached again, though, and most music listeners probably assume that’s all there was—that he was a one-hit wonder who faded into obscurity.

 Most music listeners would be wrong: McFerrin has remained active and relevant throughout the 22 years since “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” hit #1 (the first a capella song to ever accomplish that, incidentally). McFerrin’s latest album, VOCAbularies (EmArcy), is a stunning testament to his broader impact and enduring influence on the vocal arts. His approach recalls Bjork’s all-vocal masterpiece Medulla, as well as the seminal works of Meredith Monk, among others. There’s been a lot of work recorded for arranged vocal groups, excellent stuff spanning almost all genres. McFerrin takes the format a ways forward from where it’s been up to now, imposing his own stamp as surely as he did on the doo-wop/calypso forms he used in “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. It’s a stunning testament to the scope of McFerrin’s talent.

Besides some splashes of sax and woodwind on three tracks, and percussionists Alex Acuna and Roger Treece (who also adds some drum programming, and co-wrote many of the songs on the album), all the sounds on VOCAbulaies are produced by human voices. Many of them. The logistics are pretty imposing: The leader is augmented by some 52 different vocalists over the seven tracks of the album. They number the same as the cards in a deck, and McFerrin plays them with the dizzying speed and finesse of a Vegas dealer; the deck always seems stacked in his favor. But in this case, when the house wins, the listener does, too.

I hesitate to refer to the material specifically as “music” or “songs”, since there’s so little in terms of instrumentation. But McFerrin’s arrangements are certainly musical in nature, to the extent that they probably translate easily to an orchestral setting. Even the most intimate-sounding tracks include a dozen singers or more. It’s hard to break down the technical aspects of the work in a way that really makes sense in print, so I’d suggest playing this album on a lazy day at home, as you read a favorite book. It sounds especially good through a nice set of headphones.

 

sdh666@hotmail.com; July 14, 2010

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