Thursday, February 1, 2007

Bobby McFerrin & Voicestra

Those who remember Bobby McFerrin solely for his pop radio hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy" may not know that McFerrin is one of the greatest improvisers alive today. I had the good fortune of seeing him in performance on January 24th at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, Calif. with his 12-person a cappella group, Voicestra.

You've probably noticed that most jazz ensembles tend to tackle all tunes the same way: The group plays the theme, then several soloists take turns improvising on that theme, and finally the band wraps it up by stating the theme again. It's a yin-yang juxtaposition that balances free-flowing improvisations within a strict formula for song arrangements.

But that's not how Voicestra operates: They improvise everything, including the theme itself.

Here's how it worked: McFerrin would ask one of the singers in the group to spontaneously invent a musical theme. McFerrin would listen and identify a piece of it that he liked, and then he would improvise a bass line under it. Singing the bass line, he would walk over to one of the other singers and "pass" the bass line to that singer. Next he would create a counterpoint melody on top, and then he'd hand that off to another singer. And so the piece would organically evolve into something completely different, until the entire group was singing half a dozen different parts in perfect rhythm and harmony -- a vocalese jam session, with McFerrin as its spontaneous arranger and conductor.

For many songs, McFerrin himself would start off by inventing the melody. I couldn't help but notice that McFerrin's inventions were already fully formed musical ideas the moment he created them, whereas his colleagues' improvisations were sometimes awkward initially. But in every case, McFerrin managed to take what the other singers gave him and turn it into something amazing.

It was fascinating to watch and listen as McFerrin literally invented and then discarded dozens upon dozens of terrific riffs, bass lines, and melodic hooks. I found myself wishing for a tape recorder, if only to preserve these great musical ideas that McFerrin was creating and then discarding without a second thought.