Improvisation is singer's key to performing and building a career

Published: Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 1:33 a.m.
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Vocalist Bobby McFerrin will perform with his ensemble "Voicestra" on Tuesday at the Phillips Center.

Special to The Sun


Bobby McFerrin's Voicestra

  • WHAT: 10-time Grammy Award winner Bobby McFerrin and his Voicestra.
  • WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
  • WHERE: Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, 315 Hull Road.
  • TICKETS: $25-40, $10 for students (392-ARTS).

  • Bobby McFerrin is four people.
    Conductor, soloist, choral performer and collaborator all combine to make the man.
    "My musical life is like a tree," McFerrin explains. "The solo singing is like the roots and the trunk. The conducting and other stuff is like the branches."
    McFerrin brings one of those branches, the "Voicestra" choral performance, to the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday.
    Voicestra is an entirely improvised vocal performance featuring McFerrin and a cast of 12 supporting singers schooled in everything from jazz to Indian classical opera.
    "Nothing is thought out beforehand," he says. "We don't talk about what we're going to do, we just walk out on stage and start singing."
    McFerrin says that he has learned to give his fellow performers space to create and trust that they will be able to follow his lead.
    "I trust these singers, and because of that I feel like I can go any place," he says. "The evening can include everything from things that sound like African chants to classical music.
    "The audience can expect a concert that is new not only to them but to us as well."
    He does admit, however, that part of the danger - and much of the excitement - of improvising is that it might not work.
    "Lots of times it falls on its face or it doesn't fulfill you," he says. "You're really vulnerable because you're doing this in front of people. The point is not to think at all."
    McFerrin's musical life started early, although it took him many years to feel comfortable with improvising.
    His father, the late Robert, Sr., was the first African-American man to be engaged as a soloist for the Metropolitan Opera and was the singing voice of Porgy in the film version of George Gershwin's renowned opera, "Porgy and Bess"
    McFerrin says his father influenced him "in huge ways."
    "When I was a kid I used to hide under the piano when my dad would give voice lessons," he says. "He's my favorite singer."
    McFerrin started his recording career with 1982's "Bobby McFerrin" release.
    However, it was not until 1988's "Simple Pleasures," that McFerrin broke into the mainstream with the Grammy Award-winning single, "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
    Now, almost 20 years later, McFerrin looks back on the song fondly, although he does not ever perform it live.
    "I'm really grateful that tune happened," he says. "It's still working for me. But I made a decision almost 20 years ago, I said I'm not going to do that tune on stage, otherwise the audience will never let go of it, they'll expect that in every performance. I was trying to attract hard-core listeners, not cotton-candy fans."
    Even while the song catapulted him to household name status, McFerrin pursued his muse in other areas, collaborating with a host of legendary performers including Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Yo-Yo Ma.
    And while these albums strayed away from the easy pop appeal of "Don't Worry, Be Happy," they quietly grew McFerrin a staunch fan base.
    "I just had to do it," he says. "It was just burning up inside me and there was no way I could avoid it."

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