Bobby McFerrin, vocalist extraordinaire, has a philosophy for his all-improvisational concerts: “We enter the stage empty, but we exit full.”
The same could be said for his interviews.
Calling last week from his home in Philadelphia, McFerrin hesitatingly answered a few questions and then declared: “Gosh, it’s been three years since I’ve done an interview. I forgot how to answer any of these questions.”
He agreed to a chat before his rare four-night stand this week at the Dakota, a return to the Twin Cities, where he lived from 1994-2001 when he served as creative chair of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
For the interview, the 68-year-old, 10-time Grammy winner phoned 10 minutes early, something that rarely happens in show business. He started answering questions laconically and eventually blossomed.
That’s sort of what happens in his improvised concerts — except he doesn’t commence before the scheduled time. He starts the songs and his singers join in. At the Dakota, he’ll be accompanied by a mini-version — just four singers — of his 12-member Voicestra ensemble.
He never has brain freeze to kick off a new piece.
“It’s just a matter of opening up your mouth and singing. You just keep going,” he said. “The most fundamental part of improvisation is motion. Before anything else, it’s the courage to open your mouth and sing and keep going. That’s the first law of improv.”
As anyone who has seen a comedy improv troupe can attest, improvisation can be “really risky,” as McFerrin put it. “Lots of times it doesn’t work. I might have an idea where it should go, but instead of going right, it goes left. Instead of going up, it goes down.”
To do improvisational singing requires great focus and attention to the other singers. Sometimes McFerrin can seem oblivious to the audience.
“Not in a rude way, but I ignore the audience for a bit,” hoping to get adjusted to his environment. “That can take 10, 15, 25 minutes before I’m centered. Then I invite the audience in at that point.”
Voicestra singer Judi Donaghy Vinar, who is from the Twin Cities, understands this all-consuming concentration.
“Bobby has a magical way of raising the focus of the people around him. Just probably by being as focused as he is,” she said. “Whenever I’m with him, I feel like I’ve stepped up another level in focus. And therefore I’m able to live in the moment, which is what this is all about.”
McFerrin appreciates Vinar’s contributions for the past 17 years.
“She brings a vast knowledge of music and the life of a musician and what that can be,” he said.
McFerrin, by contrast, had to “relearn what it’s like to be on the road. I was just in Europe for three weeks. It took a little getting used to again. I forgot about going through security and the stuff you have to take out of your bags.”
Doesn’t analyze shows
When McFerrin finishes an improvised performance, he doesn’t analyze it or revisit it. In fact, he usually doesn’t remember his performance.
Well, he does remember a performance of improvisation with a particular pianist who didn’t know how to end it.
“He didn’t know I was done. We’d stated our themes, developed the material and we brought it to a close, and this guy wouldn’t stop playing,” McFerrin said. “So I sat down at the piano and started playing piano with him. At some point, I took my left hand and put it under his right hand and lifted his hand up in the air. That was the only way I could get him to stop.”
McFerrin also recalled the time in 2001 when the late jazz vocal star Al Jarreau plucked McFerrin out of the audience at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis to join him during his encore.
“I remember that. We did [Chick Corea’s] ‘Spain,’ ” McFerrin said of his pal Jarreau, with whom he has recorded. “We shared an interesting fact. His birthday and my birthday were a day apart, and both of our wives were born on the same day, the same year.”
Ah, McFerrin has warmed up to the interview.
Sorry, he doesn’t keep up with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, although he does know it doesn’t have a single artistic director anymore.
“They haven’t invited me back, which is fine because they went in another direction,” he said matter of factly, with no hint of hurt. “We haven’t spoken since I left. I’d love to see them in performance.”
He thanks the SPCO for teaching him how to conduct, although he doesn’t conduct anymore.
“That was a wonderful time period of my life. I really enjoyed it,” he reminisced. “I could never call myself a conductor. I was a singer who conducts. I loved conducting Mozart more than any other composer.”
These days McFerrin works with the a cappella Voicestra doing improvisations or his band (and daughter) offering material from “Spirityouall,” his 2013 album of spirituals.
He’s pleased to report on his three children, who spent some formative years in the Twin Cities, two attending Breck, one St. Paul Academy.
Taylor McFerrin is a musician and recording artist, on tour in rising jazz star Robert Glasper’s band. Jevon McFerrin is an understudy for the lead role in “Hamilton” on Broadway, and proud papa has seen him play the part several times. Madison McFerrin is a singer-songwriter who sometimes performs with her father and just returned from working in Brazil.
Music is his gift
The New York-born, Los Angeles-reared McFerrin calls Philadelphia home these days.
“I live out in the woods,” he said. “Nobody can find me.”
He doesn’t get out much. He goes to a gym twice a week for hourlong sessions with a trainer. If he listens to music at home, it’s usually classical, preferably Rachmaninoff. When he’s driving on long road trips, he opts for the jazz group the Yellowjackets. He’s also fond of a lesser known jazz outfit, Snarky Puppy.
Music, he says, is his gift. “I must do it. I can’t help myself.”
The son of an operatic baritone father and a singer mother, McFerrin tried to develop his own style of vocal improvisation, waiting until he was 32 to make his recording debut in 1982 of pop and jazz songs. His second album was entirely solo, just his voice and his own vocal percussion interpreting pop and jazz tunes.
McFerrin’s big commercial breakthrough came on his fourth studio album, 1988’s “Simple Pleasures,” featuring covers of songs by Buddy Miles, Cream and the Beatles plus a breezy, reggae-tinged original with an affected accent called “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” That tune became the first a cappella song to go No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart, and it captured Grammys for song and record of the year.
McFerrin has since recorded 16 more studio albums, including two with pianist Corea, one with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, one with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and one for children.
He has no plans to record again soon. He said he lacks the energy or desire to write material right now.
Over the years, his voice has gotten softer, he noted.
As for his four-octave range, “it’s not all the way back,” he acknowledged. “I haven’t used it in three years or so. It’s a little rough around the edges, but it still works.”
It has been 30 years since McFerrin last performed “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Since November 1988, to be exact. He reportedly stopped singing it because George H.W. Bush was using it as his official presidential campaign song without McFerrin’s permission.
“Every once in a while when I’m improvising, I might introduce the theme,” he said.
And he then cautioned: “But I quickly leave it.”