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District Jazz

DC Jazz Festival: June 1-13, 2011

By Published: June 30, 2011
Performed entirely a capella and spanning African chants to European choral music, McFerrin's distinct vocal approach might seem like an ethnomusicological treatise if it weren't for his totally organic delivery that fuses humor, longing, religious depth, and simple humanism into a fully realized inspirational moment. Alternating between solo pieces and works performed with the Afro Blue, McFerrin first eased the audience into his auditory milieu with a chanting tune built on aboriginal rhythms before turning to "Baby," from his new album. Also performed solo, "Baby" expounded on a simple theme and lyric, transforming the repeated phrase "baby" into a challenge to envision the world we are creating for our children.

Next, McFerrin turned his attention to the American love affair with the car. Again using a capricious lyric as the foundation for a deeper meaning, McFerrin wove together multiple American rhythmic traditions to paint an insightful portrait of the American mythos of the cross-country getaway. McFerrin was then joined by Afro Blue for the first of the night's ensemble pieces, "Garden," also from the new album, which delved into overtly religious territory, encasing a meditation on Eden and the Tree of Life in a multi-voiced choir combining European choral traditions, African chants, and American pop soloing for a surprisingly heartfelt effect. Revealing McFerrin's ability to meld whimsy with wisdom, these tunes set the stage for the progression of the night, which, as it alternated between humor and profundity, drew the audience progressively further into McFerrin's syncretic musical universe and spiritual Weltanschauung—at the core of which lies an uplifting sense of joy.

Bobby McFerrin

Over the rest of the night, McFerrin brought forth an ever more complex vision, including duets exploring the scat tradition, a heart-rending solo spiritual calling on the redemptive power of Jesus, and a stand-out performance of "Messages," an extended work of sweeping beauty dedicated to the "messages we receive from those who went before us."

A resonant paean to the human experience, McFerrin's heterodox intermingling of the sacred and the secular stood out as a high point of the festival and emphasized this year's theme of musical diversity, also contributing further to the atmosphere of communal spirit and celebration.


Ending as it began, the final night of the 2011 DC Jazz Festival cast a spotlight on the music of New Orleans and in doing so hit a high water mark that etched in stark relief the lasting power of jazz and the gravitational pull of New Orleans culture.

Hosted by Wendell Pierce, who plays a key protagonist in the HBO series Treme (also of The Wire), and featuring music and musicians from the hit show, the closing concert was divided neatly in two halves, the first a scripted educational journey, the second a straightforward, roof-raising concert.

The first half of the concert mixed performance with education, providing a narrated history of New Orleans' musical culture with each element illustrated by a musical sample provided by the talented roster of musicians brought together for the event. Narrated by Pierce, this section provided audiences perhaps less familiar with the history and structures of New Orleans jazz a condensed lesson in the importance of Congo Square, the role of Indians and Big Chiefs, the origins of the second-line, and many other aspects important to appreciating the musical display about to come. Though heavily scripted, the musical interludes were fiery and freewheeling enough to get the capacity crowd to its feet, clapping to the rhythms and engaging in call-and-response exchanges with the band.

Pierce explained that the educational element was quite deliberate and one of the reasons he wanted to be part of the endeavor, as was striking a balance between providing information and providing an authentic musical experience,

"We went back and forth on the explanations for tonight. It may seem a little sing-song...It may sound a little pedantic and preaching to the choir, but there will be a lot of people who don't understand, for example, how social clubs [evolved]... , the social aid, the support people put together, that is culture in action."

Pierce went on to articulate the strength of culture and the powerful role the show Treme has had as a cultural transmitter in the rejuvenation of New Orleans and, as he sees it, a rejuvenation of the musical tradition both inside and outside of the city.

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