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(Sony Masterworks 45686 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/15/2013)
I think that one of the most musically interesting figures to have achieved some degree of pop stardom is Bobby McFerrin. Most of the public knows him for his light-hearted a cappella piece from 1988, Don't Worry Be Happy. But his music is a lot more than that. He has has worked in jazz, classical and theater. He has also had roles as a voiceover artist for films. In addition to his performing and recording on his own, he has served as the creative director for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and has guest-conducted a who's-who of major symphony orchestras including The New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and many others.
While known for his remarkable vocal technique and his construction of orchestrations with a cappella vocals, his first musical gigs were as a pianist, and he was sometimes a sideman for jazz musicians. After having such a big hit with the Grammy-winning Don't Worry Be Happy, he was determined not to be pigeonholed as a novelty a cappella vocalist. So on his own recordings, he has done a wide range of projects, some with instrumentation and some building on vocals, including the vocal group he put together he called the Voicestra. His last recording, released in 2010 was a remarkable work called VOCAbulArieS, which had hundreds of vocals parts by a variety of singers layered into some amazing vocal textures.
Bobby McFerrin's classical credibility comes naturally though family ties. Bobby McFerrin is the son of Robert McFerrin who was the first African-American singer at the Metropolitan Opera to be given a lead role. The senior McFerrin also was the singing voice behind Sidney Poitier's portrayal of Porgy in the 1959 film adaptation of the Gershwin classic Porgy and Bess. Robert McFerrin was also known for his performances of African-American Gospel and spirituals. In 1957, McFerrin, Sr. released an acclaimed album called Deep River of what was then called Negro spirituals.
Now Bobby McFerrin has gone back to his roots on for his new album called Spirit You All, and done a series of typically creative versions of the old spirituals, along with some original songs that could easily have been old Gospel tunes. He performs them with an eclectic group, not a cappella, but with a kind of amalgam of American roots sounds, sometimes in unlikely juxtapositions, such as jazz and a country-ish steel guitar, or with a rootsy Dobro with the kind of playful vocal techniques that McFerrin is known for. As a vocal colleague, he is sometimes joined by jazz and pop sensation Esperanza Spalding, who also won her share of Grammy awards in 2013.
McFerrin's main musical collaborator on Spirit You All is keyboard man Gil Goldstein, a jazz player who is known for his frequent work on accordion. Goldstein did all the instrumental arrangements. The other key players on the album, in addition to Ms. Spalding on bass, are string multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell who is heard on conventional and resonator guitar, pedal steel and fiddle. The drummers are Ali Jackson and Charley Drayton, and jazz bassist Larry Grenadier, known for his work with the Brad Mehldau Trio alternates with Ms. Spalding.
Some of the material on the album is the classic traditional songs that everybody knows, some are less so. There's also a Bob Dylan song, and five originals by McFerrin.
In the CD's descriptive booklet, it is noted how McFerrin pays tribute to his father, including reproducing the artwork from the senior McFerrin's 1957 spirituals album.
Spirit You All begins with the same song that opened Robert McFerrin's Deep River, Everytime. Bobby McFerrin shares the vocal spotlight with Esperanza Spalding in this version of the song that is miles from the senior McFerrin's. Bobby McFerrin gives it a kind of easy folky jazzy groove, along with his trademark vocal gymnastics. <<>>
Following is one of the most beloved and popular traditional spirituals Swing Low Sweet Chariot, whose title is shortened to just Swing Low. Ms. Spalding also adds her vocals to this interesting almost atmospheric treatment. It's an excellent example of how McFerrin and his arranger Gil Goldstein can completely reinvent this classic song, while keeping it reverent. <<>>
Another of the best-known spirituals, Joshua is turned into a kind of bluesy jam. The liner notes say that this track was inspired by Sister Rosetta Tharpe's version. McFerrin gets into some rather un-Gospel like scat singing. <<>>
Another song that Robert McFerrin, Sr., did on his Deep River album 56 years ago, Fix Me Jesus is taken several light years into a different direction by the son Bobby. With the resonator guitar and Gil Goldstein's accordion, the result is an unusual kind of swampy blues. <<>>
The Bob Dylan song on the album is the classic I Shall Be Released. Interestingly, this has about the most Gospel like approach with the church-like backing vocals, but then there's that twangy country steel guitar. <<>>
One of the most infectiously fun tracks on the album is Whole World, short for "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." Esperanza Spalding is again featured in supporting vocals on this kind of mix of reggae, blues and almost a children's song. <<>>
Gracious is an original composition that McFerrin wrote as a kind of love song, but he turned it into a devotional song for the album, according to the liner notes. It's a fascinating blend of McFerrin's remarkable vocal style in a kind of tricky rhythm with folky mandolin and fiddle. <<>>
Perhaps the most like what would you expect from an old Gospel song is Glory, which shares a tune with Will the Circle Be Unbroken. It's done in two parts with the reverent first section <<>> before breaking into a playful all-out Gospel treatment. <<>>
The CD ends with another original song by McFerrin, Rest/Yes, Indeed, with a fascinating blend that includes a kind of folk-dance portion in an 11-beat rhythm. <<>>
Once again, Bobby McFerrin has proven to be one of the most fascinating and creative artists on the scene with his combination of remarkable vocal technique, musical eclecticism, and good-natured playfulness, this time, paying tribute to his father with a collection of spirituals, from the most familiar to highly original compositions. The instrumentation and the imaginative arrangements by Gil Goldstein provide some of the musical inventiveness that marks the treatments of, especially, the classic spirituals. And with McFerrin at age 63, his vocal gymnastics are still in top form.
We'll give the CD a full grade "A" for audio quality. The vocals and instrumentation are all nicely recorded with good clarity and warmth, and the dynamic range is better than average for contemporary CDs.
Bobby McFerrin comes close to the being the epitome of a musical Renaissance man, with his classical, pop, and jazz background, his pioneering vocal technique and his imagination and good humor. Spirit You All shows yet another facet of his remarkable career.
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