You have no idea how badly I want to start this review with a “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” pun. Seriously. But I’m not going to do that. And you know why? Bobby McFerrin doesn’t deserve it. He’s a ten-time Grammy winner, world-renowned vocal improvisor, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and collaborator with folks as diverse as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and jazz keyboardist Chick Corea. The man has credentials. But no matter what impressive feats he achieves or diverse abilities he demonstrates, Big Bob will always remain the goofy, barefoot guy in a white suit whistling and dancing with Robin Williams in a corny music video.
That’s a shame. However, his press release biography offers some good advice: “Go to YouTube, type in Bobby’s name, sit back, and prepare for a serious boggling of the mind”. Indeed, if you are one of the millions of people only familiar with McFerrin’s solitary hit from 1988, this experience will serve as a wake-up call to this man’s solitary talent and unique stance in popular music. His live performances, frequently solo and a cappella, demonstrate his phenomenal polyphonic vocal technique as a virtual one-man band, jumping from deep bass runs to falsetto fills over several octaves, whistling, mimicking trumpets and harmonicas. He can do funk (the sexy groove of “Thinkin’ About Your Body”); he can do classical (the mind-blowing vocal arpeggios in his take on “Ave Maria”). He also thrives on audience participation and active demonstrations of music theory (his exploration of the intuitive nature of the pentatonic scale at the 2009 World Science Festival is both hilarious and insightful).
VOCAbuLarieS is the logical next step. While his studio albums have offered a handful of revelatory moments, none of them have truly captured the full scope and spirit of McFerrin’s abilities and eclecticism, particularly in those unhinged, palpably exciting live performances. Live, even through YouTube, there is a sense of daring and improvisation that the confines of his studio work have simply been unable to convey.
Until now, that is. On VOCAbuLaries, McFerrin has found a way to express his love of the human voice in a recorded setting, but he has also managed to retain the vibrant adventurousness of his live performances. Perhaps collaboration is the true key here. As unique and technically impressive as those solo live performances are, it seems McFerrin has finally realized the difficulty of making the gimmick work in an album context.
Simply put, there’s only so much one man can do by himself. VOCAbuLarieS takes the complete opposite approach, bringing in over 50 outside vocalists (and the occasional percussionist) from multiple genres and several continents, working as a multi-cultural virtual choir. The most crucial collaborator is composer/arranger/vocalist Roger Treece, who spent roughly seven years sorting through and editing an immense catalogue of McFerrin’s diverse (and mostly improvised) archival recordings, making note of the most interesting passages and developing the sketches into fully-fledged vocal works.
The results are stunning. “Baby”, a re-interpretation of an earlier McFerrin studio track, is an introspective reflection on family cycles, and it opens the album gorgeously with a torrential wind of voices, morphing through jazzy chord changes and harmonies, smooth whistling, and effortless lead riffing from McFerrin. The only instrumental support is minimal percussion and synth programming, but with McFerrin’s percussive and textural vocal patterns on full display, the actual instruments are almost afterthoughts.
McFerrin frequently sings in all four voice parts, sharing space with diverse singers such as Lisa Fischer, Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza, and Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel. As the press release points out, each singer recorded their parts individually, accumulating to over 1,400 recorded vocal tracks. But instead of a messy choral clusterfuck, the voices weave and bounce off each other in exquisite drips of seductive counterpoint and wicked global fusion. Treece’s production gives every syllable a sonic space, allowing the voices to breathe and sigh when they need to, bleeding them into a visceral mountains of exotic sound.
Taking elements from African, Indian, and European music, the tracks are often so huge and global, it’s difficult by track’s end to recall the culture of origin. “Wailers” is an invigorating African chant with exquisite percussion and wordless vocal runs that chill the spine. “Say Ladeo” blends the African influences with a more traditional jazz/R&B groove in Treece’s sparkly production sheen. If there is an obvious single (on an album where the shortest track is over six minutes long), this is it.
Duduk and saxophone flesh out the Indian-tinged “Messages”, which also incorporates Gregorian chanting, a Western-influenced choral pattern, and, mid-way through, an explosion of interweaving voice parts that is nearly frightening in its intensity. Even at over 11 minutes in length, the track never rests for a second, constantly shifting into other musical frameworks, never ceasing its sonic grip.
It may be sold in the corresponding section of your local music store (if it’s sold there at all), but this is certainly not easy listening. VOCAbuLarieS is a lengthy, demanding, occasionally challenging musical experience, but it rewards the patient listener, revealing new sounds and textures with each spin. It’s a testament to both McFerrin’s long-underrated abilities, and the sheer expansiveness and possibilities of the human voice.
After spending the majority of his musical life battling his way out of the shadow of an uncharacteristic novelty song, Big Bob has finally made an album capable of earning him the respect he deserves. Almost 30 years into his singular, chaotic career as a musical chameleon, McFerrin sounds like he’s just getting started. Enough reason to not worry, I’d say.