If anybody embodies Meher Baba’s immortal words “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, it is the artist who composed that song, 70-year-old unruffled vocalist supreme Bobby McFerrin.
That versatile voice, by virtue of his dedication, acumen, improvisation and inheritance (both his parents were singers), has floated him around and around the world not only as a solo artist but also as guest conductor for symphony and philharmonic orchestras from San Francisco to Chicago to New York and from Israel to Vienna to London. The 10-time Grammy winner has also performed or recorded with elite jazz legends such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Tony Williams, cantankerous Joe Zawinul and the ultimate musical chameleon himself, Yo Yo Ma.
So much for the resume and accomplishments.
On a cold clear March 1st in Boston, Bobby McFerrin is presenting Circle Songs with his longtime pioneering sidekicks Dave Worm, Joey Blake, multi-instrumental Louis Cato and his youthful Singing Tribe, consisting of sixteen vocalists, eight males and eight females, four quartets of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. The presentation is a mostly an acapella extravaganza with Cato on drums and acoustic guitar, a sprinkling of hand percussion and some electronic backing tracks for a bit of rhythm spice.
To augment this large and impressive vocal family, the legendary vocal maestra Meredith Monk is along for the celebration. And, indeed, with these many crooners singing this well, it is a celebration.
The show opens with a kinda, sorta Deedle Be Doo scat with Mr. Mc in a subdued lead with the dextrous Cato on a small drum kit. And like the bulls in Pamplona, they are off and running, I mean, singing around the musical cosmos.
During a composition (none are named or announced) with a tango accent, Maestro McFerrin employs a mock-passionate voice to comic effect as the females in the Singing Tribe counter with a disarmingly soothing chorus. You float on the voices. The audience is enchanted but suddenly, with his masterful timing, the boss unexpectedly ends the song with a humorous and understated “Olé”.
The vibe mutates as all twenty singers embrace some funky rhythm and blues, as he calls out, “Hit me”, emulating James Brown’s famous shout out to his band. The chorus bobs and weaves as they coo that diddle dink dink chuka chuka signature JB sound. As the lead singers take turns ‘testifying’, you hear in their growling, deep-throated entreaties echoes of Joe Williams, Gil-Scott Heron, Dr, John, some of the most arresting soul-stirrers ever.
Suddenly, McFerrin is crooning the alphabet A to Z (not just once) and making it sound profound before launching into, yes, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. So, to recap: from James Brown to the Alphabet to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star in one song, more or less.
And how sweet the sounds… proving once and for all Bobby McFerrin can even make singing the alphabet sound sultry, sensual and sublime.
He attempts to gather the words to introduce Meredith Monk, abandoning that task after simply describing her as “underappreciated.” Sitting side by side, two of the most mischievous, risk-taking vocal giants ever, improvise - humming and scatting a short but precious version of Making Whoopie. At its conclusion, he releases an exultant “Yeah,” pleased that they have succeeded so brilliantly. Even masters apparently harbor some doubt and surprise themselves!
McFerrin is nothing if not humble and generous in sharing the spotlight. In a playful solo turn, the elf-like Monk deadpans (with punctuations), “I'm happy... hungry... sassy... tender... tired... reckless... scrappy…” emphasizing sassy several times.
There follows an Afro-Latin crooning of praise with McFerrin in the shadows in dance step with the chorus, moving economically, almost imperceptibly, as if his magnificent voice has consumed all the vital energy from his limbs.
Then the mighty M’s, McFerrin and Monk, engage in some Mongolian throat singing, which evokes a certain hushed gravity before they comically yee haw deep into the heart of Texas. You just never know what is coming next. Neither do they, I think, which paints the whole affair with a breathless levity. Where are we going next, kids?
A breezy Brazilian composition infuses the affair with a tropical lilt as the Singing Tribe (all sixteen of them), grooving and undulating, create a joyous symphony. At its conclusion a straight-faced McFerrin sighs, “We tried.” It sounds so unforced and fulfilling you don’t realize much of the show is improvised - up on the high wire without a net, so to speak.
Basso profondo Joey Blake enlists the eager audience, putty in his hands, to sing in sections Get it up and Go get it, while Monk hams it up chanting Oh, Bobby. The performers and the audience are finally, vocally, too, one.
There is only one place left to go. Announcing “It’s a wonderful way to enter my birthday” (March 11th), he scats Somewhere Over The Rainbow, as they conga line off the stage; first the elders, then the illuminated youth, who are certainly worthy to share the stage but still thrilled (you can see it) to be part of the “Don't Worry, Be Happy” ethos.
To a rousing standing ovation, they reappear, with McFerrin addressing the inevitable - politics. First, he opines, “This is not the place,” before reconsidering what’s at stake in 2020 and reasoning, “Every place is the place.”
He is soliciting questions but people are clamoring requests for an encore, which he will not fulfill. However, then one enthusiastic voice from way back in the balcony, unknowingly fashions the perfect conclusion: “Can we sing you Happy Birthday?”
“Knock yourself out,” he acquiesces and joins in with a doo wop denouement. And the dreadlocked troubadour, the urban shaman, humbly exits yet another symphony hall, leaving fairy dust in his trail and another titillated tribe of music lovers less worried and more happy.