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I think one of the things that sets the really great musical artists apart is a kind of creative restlessness -- trying new things at a time when time in their careers when they might be willing to settle in, collect the royalty checks, and perhaps play the nostalgia circuit. I am reminded of that by the latest durable popular artist with a decades-long career to undertake a ambitious and innovative album project this year that also proved to be one of their best. In just the last couple of months, we have had remarkable new recordings by veteran British guitarist Jeff Beck and jazz and fusion guitarist Pat Metheny that both broke new ground -- Beck with his orchestral setting, and Metheny performing new works on an array of mechanical instruments he called his Orchestrion. And now, we have a stunning new recording by Bobby McFerrin called VOACbuLarieS, in which, like Metheny, he explores a combination of new and old technologies and techniques.
Bobby McFerrin best known for his 1988 novelty a cappella hit Don't Worry Be Happy, but those who have followed his career know that he is a fascinating and versatile artist. The son of two opera singers -- his father the late Robert McFerrin, Sr. was the first African American male vocalist to be a regular the Metropolitan Opera. The younger McFerrin worked as a piano accompanist in the 1970s for the University of Utah Modern Dance Department, and played a piano bar on the side. In the 1980s, he landed a gig doing voices for animated films. After his 1988 hit he continued to make recordings and do music for films, including the theme for "Son of Pink Panther" in 1993. The following year, he returned to his classical upbringing by becoming creative chair of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and regularly does guest conductor spots with symphony orchestras, including the New York, London and Vienna Philharmonics, the Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras, and many others.
While his early recordings were primarily a cappella or solo, in recent years, McFerrin has been performing with a group called the Voicestra, with elaborate arrangements of his original music. The new CD VOCAbuLarieS, his first in some seven years, represents a kind of quantum leap. It's a collaboration with composer, arranger and vocalist Roger Treece in a kind technology-heavy assemblage of many voices from the classical, jazz, world music and even pop scene woven into almost symphonic vocal textures.
In a way, I am reminded of Pat Metheny's new recording in which high tech computer control is employed with a virtual Victorian museum of mechanically played instruments, in a kind of creative anachronism. I think there is that kind of technological inversion as well on McFerrin's VOCAbuLarieS. Roger Treece did what I suppose could be called "human sampling." At the instigation of McFerrin's long-time producer and manager Linda Goldstein, Treece went over hundreds of hours of recordings of McFerrin's vocal improvisations and extracted melodic lines, notating them and weaving them into elaborate orchestrations, which were then performed by a wide variety of voices -- over 50 in all -- from different backgrounds, recorded mostly painstakingly one at a time, and woven together with into elaborate and fairly lengthy works. The liner notes say that the project was some seven years in the making and logged over 1000 hours of studio time. But it captures the essential character of Bobby McFerrin's music, the whimsy, the creativity and jazziness, as well as some world music aspects. And the near-symphonic arrangements bring out Bobby McFerrin the classical musician and conductor. And of course, McFerrin himself is the most prominent of the singers, heard on the lead vocals, and singing in every section of the chorus -- soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
While his Voicestra hinted at this kind of elaborate vocal orchestrations, this CD uses the technology and the large cast to take it well beyond that level. And Treece's arrangements can be quite remarkable. He set out to create, in his words, "each piece with lots of twists and turns and modulations, like a page-turner or a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat." The result can range from the sublime sound of the best classical choral music to exotic or African, as well as the trademark McFerrin cleverness. The added voices include Janis Siegel from the Manhattan Transfer and members of the New York Voices vocal jazz quartet, Brazilian singer Luciana Sauza, and pop singer Rhiannon. There are also some added instruments, including percussion from former Weather Report member Alex Acuña, a woodwind section and the Central Asian instrument the dudek.
As mentioned, the CD was a long time in coming. Three of the seven compositions were commissioned by orchestras and given their original premieres in the early 2000s. Another innovation in the recording is the presence of a lyricist on some of the pieces. While some are based on McFerrin's wordless vocal improvisations, Don Rosler wrote lyrics for three of the tracks.
The CD opens with a piece called Baby, based on of one of McFerrin's previous songs. The sound is dominated by McFerrin's distinctive vocals but greatly expanded by all the added voices. <<>> In keeping with Roger Treece's approach of elaborating on the themes, the piece evolves through some striking vocal textures. <<>>
Also showing the fascinating mix of the elaborate vocals orchestrations based on a McFerrin improvisation is Say Ladeo. It's does a kind of wonderful jump back and forth between the sort of whimsical McFerrin style and an almost church-like choral sound, if a church chorus sang with jazzy harmonies. <<>>
Showing the world music facet of the CD is Wailers, which brings together influences that run from African to Middle Eastern. <<>>
Perhaps the most formal-sounding piece on the CD is called Messages, which has lines in at least 13 different languages. It also has the largest chorus. <<>>
On the other hand, the track most like a typical Bobby McFerrin song is The Garden, which is based on a previously recorded tune. It's wonderfully infectious, and maintains a light feel, despite the elaborate orchestrations. <<>>
For me, the one track that does not quite measure up to the rest is He Ran to the Train, based on two separate McFerrin tunes He Ran All the Way and The Train. Though it has its moments, especially when a kind of Brazilian beat kicks in about two thirds of the way through, the mix of influences is not as skillfully blended on this one. <<>>
The CD ends with Brief Eternity a lullaby that also features an orchestra of instruments. The piece was written for the Los Angeles Master Chorale so it has some more conventional classical choral touches, but it has some really beautiful moments. <<>>
Bobby McFerrin's new CD VOCAbuLarieS is a remarkable new work from one of the great contemporary musical Renaissance men. Together with Roger Treece, who created the arrangements based on McFerrin's music and in some cases his inimitable free-form vocal improvisations, the project was ambitious and quite large in scope. There were nearly 1400 separate vocal tracks recorded for it from singers from the jazz, classical and pop worlds, carefully assembled and arranged -- with performances of jaw-dropping vocal perfection -- into seven lengthy works that sum up McFerrin's musical persona, straddling jazz, novelty songs and classical orchestral music. It's kind of an extension of McFerrin's Voicestra concept, but using the studio to go well beyond that into vocal music that is a genuine "ear-grabber."
Our grade for audio quality is close to an "A." The voices, especially McFerrin's, are very nicely recorded, and the mix is excellent with subtle studio touches enhancing without calling attention to themselves. The dynamic range is decent, though not without some degree of volume compression.
Perhaps it's coincidence, but 2010 is proving to a year in which some Baby Boomer musicians are showing they are not over the hill. Bobby McFerrin, who turned 60 in March, 55-year-old Pat Metheny and 65-year-old Jeff Beck have all released remarkable albums this year that rank among the best of their lengthy careers. It's nice to see that the restless artist syndrome is definitely at work, and Bobby McFerrin is a prime example.
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