Bobby McFerrin - vocals; Paul Nagel - piano; Jeffrey Carney - bass; Bobby Rosenstein - drums; Paul Chico - percussion
A vocal gymnast who created his own unique vocabulary based on an incredible four-octave range and an uncanny spirit of improvisational daring, Bobby McFerrin blazed a new trail in vocal jazz during the '80s. Ironically, he became a household name based on the overwhelming success of his catchy Grammy-winning 1988 pop ditty "Don't Worry Be Happy," but it's his passion for experimenting and his audacious go-with-the-flow attitude that has defined McFerrin's genre-hopping career. At the time of this Great American Music Hall concert, McFerrin's self-titled debut record had just come out on the Elektra/Musician label, but he was no stranger to San Francisco crowds. The Manhattan-born son of operatic baritone Robert McFerrin, Sr. and opera singer Sara Copper had moved to San Francisco in 1979 and soon became a favorite n the Bay Area jazz scene. Three years later, he was headlining at Great American Music Hall, showcasing his incredible pipes before an adoring hometown audience.
Accompanied by a quartet of pianist Paul Nagel, bassist Jeffrey Carney, drummer Bobby Rosenstein, and percussionist Paul Chico, McFerrin kicks off his GAMH set with an evocative, atmospheric reading of Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage." McFerrin begins by stating the haunting theme in his fluttering falsetto as Nagel comps sparingly behind him, letting the music breathe. And then the fun begins. Going all the way out on a limb, McFerrin proceeds to explore all possible permutations for improvisation on this two-chord modal vehicle. As the energy level picks up, Nagel shifts into a son montuno vibe on piano as Bobby drops into his natural voice and commences to improvise aggressively, with Chico providing a spark to the proceedings with his percolating conga work. Following extended solos by pianist Nagel and bassist Carney, they return to the relaxed, soothing theme, with McFerrin again supplying the floating falsetto melody. Keeping with the Latin theme that they alluded to in the opener, they turn in an affecting rumba interpretation of George Gershwin' classic "Summertime," with McFerrin affecting a macho Gil-Scott Heron-styled baritone on the lyrics before erupting with an incredible trumpet-like scat in the high register. The singer next demonstrates his adeptness at blowing in an uptempo setting on a blazing "Anthropology"-styled bebop number which has him stretching and exploring in uninhibited fashion in the falsetto range.
McFerrin plays it fairly straight-forward on his moving ballad "Sightless Bird," right up until the moment he improvises, when he takes off into the stratosphere on another electrifying free flowing falsetto excursion. He next delves into an unaccompanied vocal extravaganza, highlighting his astonishing ability to alternately supply his own bass lines. It's a feat that he later played to the hilt on The Voice, particularly on the aptly titled tuned "I'm My Own Walkman." He then gets the audience involved in some a cappella singing on the old-time spiritual number "I Can't Stay Away" before heading into an alluring, swinging interpretation of Van Morrison's "Moondance." McFerrin and his crew conclude their September 5th GAMH set on a triumphant note with a rousing rendition of Milton Nascimento's buoyant, oft-covered tune "Cravo e Canela" (aka "Cinammon Flower") that gives percussionist Chico plenty of room to stretch out on congas.
Following this Great American Music Hall concert, McFerrin jettisoned his quartet and toured Europe as a solo a cappella artist during the summer of 1983. The results of that daring tour were documented on his 1984 breakthrough album, The Voice, which exploited the full range of his unprecedented octave-leaping vocal facility. He would later score a huge crossover success with 1988's Simple Pleasures, which contained the massive radioplay hit "Don't Worry Be Happy" and which earned McFerrin three Grammy Awards (Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Male Vocal Performance of the Year). He subsequently became increasingly more daring, tackling classical music as well as R&B, pop, and jazz, while also collaborating with the likes of pianists Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Manhattan Transfer, and Joe Zawinul, drummer Tony Williams, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and others.
In 1989, McFerrin formed a 10-person 'Voicestra' which he featured on both his 1990 album Medicine Music and in the score to the 1989 Oscar-winning documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. In 1994, he was appointed as creative chair of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and subsequently toured as a guest conductor for symphony orchestras throughout the United States and Canada. In the late '90s, McFerrin toured a concert version of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, partly in honor of his father, who sang the role for Sidney Poitier in the 1959 film version. He continued to tour frequently and record through the 2000s. His most recent recording is 2010's VOCAbuLarieS, an affecting vocal choir project. (Milkowski)