Wait! Was that really Bobby McFerrin holding open the door to the Dakota Jazz Club just before 7 p.m. Wednesday?
Yes it was. Why not? McFerrin did just about everything else during his first show Wednesday at the Dakota.
The vocalist extraordinaire played percussion, trumpet, bass, guitar, saxophone, flute, synthesizer, you name it — all with his voice. He made up musical ideas on the spot and taught them to his four singers and, like a maestro, conducted them. He did a similar thing with the sell-out audience, which proved to be populated with remarkably good singers. And he told a few jokes.
In short, McFerrin amazed during his 70 minutes onstage.
None of it was scripted. It was all improvised a cappella. Usually, McFerrin does this with his 12-member ensemble known as Voicestra. For his four-night, eight-show engagement at the Dakota, the group was trimmed to four. And spontaneously named the Give Me Five, according to a number ad libbed by bass singer Joey Blake.
Most of the pieces consisted of wordless sounds. McFerrin would typically improvise a few sounds that would evolve into a pattern and then the singers would pick up on it, sometimes repeating, harmonizing or finding a groove; other times they’d interweave their voices to create an intricate tapestry of sound.
This approach was reminiscent of McFerrin’s 2004 duo concert with tap dancer Savion Glover at the Orpheum Theatre. That was different in that those two artists had met only two weeks earlier. These Voicestra collaborators have been with the 68-year-old 10-time Grammy winner for years. With Glover, it was pretty much call and response between the partners.
With Give Me Five, the improvising had more potential to be complicated — or to fail. Well, nothing really failed; some pieces were more compelling, especially when they became conversations.
A few musical conversations could have taken place at the United Nations, such as the African chant that hopscotched to the Far East. On another piece, McFerrin led the singers into kind of an African groove and then took a solo excursion to the Middle East.
Judi Donaghy Vinar, a Twin Cities singer, created a piece that felt like an American Indian chant. Vocalist Rhiannon led a song with a jazzy vocalese vibe before making up lyrics about being at a train station and eventually repeating “fill up the train” with the rhythm of a chugging engine.
David Worm distinguished himself as a vocal percussionist while Blake masterfully provided bass, trombone and the group’s new moniker.
There were playful moments, such as when, in an Alfred Hitchcock-like voice, McFerrin announced: “Now we’re going to do a little Mozart.” He sang a few notes and proclaimed: “That’s it.”
McFerrin even had fun musically, delivering singular lines from James Brown and Sly Stone classics before segueing into a fuller take on Chicago’s “Colour My World,” which he turned over to Vinar for a stunning flute solo. Her high soprano note brought a smile from McFerrin.
At show’s end, the doorman-turned-emcee declared that the performance had been completely spontaneous. Because, he announced, “We are all graduates of MSU — making stuff up.”