Bobby McFerrin Expands His Vocabulary

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

It's hard to believe, but Bobby McFerrin turned 60 earlier this year. Gray streaks his dreadlocks and speckles his beard, but his eyes are just the same. They are avid, and beam with childlike glee; it's as if they are saying, "I don't need to hire a band, I have all the music I need inside of me. It's all the music you need, too; here, let me demonstrate."


Twenty-two years ago McFerrin recorded "Don't Worry, Be Happy," one of the most unlikely chart-topping hits in pop-music history. It was a solo vocal tour de force, crossing cultures and ingeniously advancing scat singing and beatboxing into new, futuristic realms. McFerrin wasn't one to coast. He developed the Voicestra singing group to expand his concepts, and he spent the '90s moving between jazz and classical recordings. He worked with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Chick Corea and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Then, after Beyond Words, a 2002 recording with an all-star jazz backing group, the voice grew quiet. McFerrin stopped recording. 

Rumors abounded in the music industry that McFerrin was working on his most ambitious project yet. It's an album called VOCAbularieS (EmArcy Recordings), and the rumors were true. It's a project of immense scope, featuring 50 vocalists in a variety of settings, performing music that globe-trots through a range of traditions as wide as Middle Eastern and South American, African and Eastern European, without leaving pop, jazz and classical behind. The recording is an impressive feat, and McFerrin has topped that by taking it on the road. This weekend he brings it to Jazz at Lincoln Center. He took a break from rehearsals to speak with The Root about his new project, his musical inspiration and his dream collaboration (it might surprise you!). 

The Root: More than eight years elapsed between the release of Beyond Words and VOCAbularieS. Was all the time spent working on the new record?

Bobby McFerrin: A lot of it was. We were working at least part of the time on it for seven, eight, nine years, really. There were some other things like commissions and tours that kept us busy, too, but a lot of energy went into creating this. 

TR: Many musicians of your stature teach at conservatories and universities. Does that interest you?

BM: It does — immensely, in fact, and I am. I teach two classes a year at Berklee [School of Music in Boston], and I love it. The curiosity and openness of the students are a constant source of inspiration for me. The energy of youth is fantastic. 


TR : You draw on so many different styles of music and with such flair. Have your inspirations changed over the years?

BM: There is so much to be inspired by. The question is keeping yourself open to the inspiration. In some ways I still draw inspiration from the music I heard in the late '60s, Miles Davis, and all the rock and soul music going on at that time. There was a radio station I used to listen to — I fear it's long gone now — KZAP. To me it was the perfect radio station. They could play James Brown, follow it with a Brandenburg Concerto [by Bach] and finish a set with Procol Harum, and yet it would all make sense.


TR: You might be able to create such a station on the Internet. Are you active on the Web? Have you given any thought to releasing your music via Internet-based resources?

BM: No. [Laughs.] I have given it some thought, and I think it's best to leave those matters to people who actually know what they are doing. The only thing that interests me is making music, especially concerts. There's something that happens when music is performed. A big group of strangers suddenly become a community united by these sounds. There's something magical in that. 


TR: Do you ever go back and listen to your older recordings?

BM: Sometimes, but not often. I was listening to my first record not too long ago, and I almost wondered, who is that guy singing? [Laughs.]


TR: Do you have a dream project these days?

BM: I'd like to make a record with Eric Clapton. I'd really like to explore the rock-blues territory. 


TR: How much time do you spend on the road either giving concerts or in educational activities?

BM: Too much. Maybe six months, sometimes. I love my home life. It's so peaceful here [in Pennsylvania]. I can hear nature, the wind, the trees. It's both calming and inspiring. If I could, I'd love to just get beamed to my concerts like Star Trek and then get beamed back home after we're done. 


Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter