Improvisation’s ‘beautiful risk’

Vocal innovator Bobby McFerrin, a 10-time Grammy award winner, gained worldwide attention in the late 1980s as somewhat of a musical prankster by applying his four-octave delivery to an incredible array of mostly imitative sounds on 1988’s top-selling solo vocal album, «Simple Pleasure.» The release, which included a runaway hit single, «Don’t Worry, Be Happy,» led to instant pop stardom. But McFerrin, the son of classical singer parents – his father was the first African-American male soloist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera – shunned the pop charts soon after to study conducting instead. His career has since proven diverse and unpredictable. A world-renowned classical conductor, McFerrin, whose recorded work has sold over 20 million units, has established himself in both the jazz and classical domains. Collaborations include directing the Vienna Philharmonic and working with many esteemed musicians, among them Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Yo-Yo Ma. Much of McFerrin’s work is based on vocal improvisation, either alone, with other musicians or with his vocal ensemble, Voicestra. Beyond music, McFerrin has worked with the actor Jack Nicholson – on a CD for children – comedians Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, and the Muppets. The artist, who will perform at the Athens Concert Hall this Thursday with Voicestra shared some of his thoughts with Kathimerini English Edition in a recent telephone interview from his Philadelphia home. We could begin with your upcoming performance in Athens. Well, it’s all going to be improvised. The entire thing? Yes. It’s risky but it’s beautiful. Every piece is pretty much made up on the spot. It’s hard to say what it sounds like because each singer has his or her own strength. We have a soprano who’s very classically oriented, so occasionally we’ll take a dip into that world. We have some people who are very much into jazz, and so we’ll do a piece that has that. We’ve got some people who are into gospel and others into hip-hop and – oh gosh, it could be anything – so many things come up. But it all happens on the spot. We don’t quite know where the music’s going to go. So everything that the audience hears will be pieces that nobody else has heard before and, unless it’s recorded, it will never be heard again. And I find that beautiful. When we, as the musicians and the audience, are all experiencing the same music at that moment only for that time and the only time that it can be recalled is within ourselves, within our memory – I think that is really beautiful. Do you work this way often? I love improvisation and so I work in that context with a lot of other musicians. This summer I’m doing some voice-and-drum improvisational work with Jack DeJohnette. Also, Chick Corea and I do a lot of things. But Chick and I not only make up things on the spot, we also play tunes. But then they can go any way they want to basically. So improvisation is usually the basis of everything I do. Considering your activity’s unpredictability, is there anything you particularly enjoy? No. I enjoy every aspect of my career. I enjoy conducting orchestras, doing Mozart and Beethoven, and then I like turning around the next day and going to a jazz festival and doing solo voice work, or working with Voicestra, or working with a band that I’ve put together for a particular tour. And then I love turning around and going into a recording studio and working on pieces. So it’s all pretty fascinating, all very interesting and challenging. As the child of classical singer parents, music has probably been a way of life for you for some time. I heard a lot of opera and classical music as I was growing up. But I also heard a lot of jazz, too. My parents loved Count Basie and Billie Holiday. Had you made up your mind early about focusing on music? Not until I was in high school did I really make up my mind – not until I was a senior actually. I played in some bands when I was about 14 or 15. I had played piano since I was 6. But not until I went to college did I actually make the decision that I was going to be a musician, when I was 18. Were there any other thoughts? Well, not really. I loved English. I thought maybe I could be a writer or teach English in high school or something like that. But it was probably inevitable that I’d be a musician. I was surrounded by music – loved it. It was natural for me. I suppose this could have been the time that you began discovering unique qualities in your voice. I didn’t know anything about my voice until I was almost 30. I was 27 years old when I pretty much discovered my voice really. And then, even after that, it took me about six years before I did my first solo concert. So between 27 and 33, I was pretty much doing a lot of experimentation. I played with bands, played piano bars and worked with Jon Hendricks for a while. I think it was in March, 1983, when I did my first solo concert. Then I pretty much did solo concerts exclusively for the next five years. And then I started studying conducting and began conducting in 1990. Returning to your voice, you obviously haven’t relied on natural talent alone. You’ve worked hard. Yes, of course. Even though my voice was there, I worked on my intonations; I worked on my breathing. There were other things I had to figure out how to do. I didn’t come across the technique right away; I worked on it. Among your many collaborations, do you have favorites? I can’t say I have any particular favorites. I always enjoy working with Chick [Corea]. We work together a lot actually. But I’ve enjoyed just about every collaboration I’ve ever done. Do you have any other future career plans at this stage? Well, I’d like to turn my attention to writing some poetry. My kids have encouraged me to write children’s stories because when they were young I used to improvise children’s stories to them during bedtime. So I thought I might turn some of those into stories. And I’d like to write some masses for the church and to continue to do what I’m doing now. Do you still feel as keen about it as in your earlier days? Yeah, even more so now. It’s a lot more exciting because, earlier on, I was just doing solo concerts and now I’m doing so many other things in addition to that. And it’s all been pretty balanced for the last couple of years, even the touring. I seem to go out for the perfect amount of time and then come home for the perfect amount of time. I’m not too terribly busy. I’m not a workaholic by any means. The family is important. Is there anything you’d like to add before we sign off? Just one thing: Read your Bible. That’s it. How regularly do you read it? Every day. I’m sitting right now with the Bible on my lap. It’s deep. Once you start, you just dig, dig and dig. Believe me, it just goes on… Is it an old fascination of yours? Well, my parents gave me a Bible for my seventh birthday and, probably like most kids, you read it and then you don’t. And then, when I was an adolescent I went through – I guess – a period of rebellion. But then at the age of – it must have been about 24 – I read the Bible through. I’d never read it through before, from Genesis to Revelation. And then, at that point, I kind of had an on-and-off relationship with it. I would read other religious books but always returned to the Bible. And then, about 10 years ago, I had lunch with Alice Walker [author of «The Color Purple»]. We had this really wonderful conversation about her grandmother who was deeply, deeply Christian and something in that conversation – I can’t remember exactly what she said – but I was challenged by it to read the Bible every single day. I think in the last 10 years, I’ve missed maybe five days. I keep reading it over and over and I’m always finding things about God and myself – constantly.