Vocalistics: Cascades From The First Instrument
Then you will hear the jazz of rap. In the rhythms and rhymes, and in the apocalyptic shouts of The Last Poets – Umar Bin Hassan and Abiodun Oyewole – as they streak across the skies of urban America. The poetry of Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka and Gil Scott-Heron is also music and it’s also jazz... Grandmaster Melle Mel, Killah Priest and Nas... their rhymes to are jazz – bebop to hip-hop – as we saw and have memorized when Quincy Jones brought a super constellation of stars on stage in Montreux some years ago... This was vocalistics par excellence. But there is a deeper meaning to the direction that jazz has taken since its heartbeat changed to fibrillation and the irregularity of its rhythm actually breathed new life into its soul!
There is a great album – Madman of God, by Sussan Deyhim, that extraordinary Persian-born vocalist produced in 1999. The album is an all-too-short interpretation of the poetry of the ecstatic poetry of Rumi, Saadi and Hafez. The music, while Oriental in its rhythmic centre vibrates with the swinging freedom of jazz, as Deyhim appropriates the poetry of the mystic-poets who straddled 11th to the 19th century Persia like colossi to the landscape of music. It is probably true that when the Sufi’s wrote their ecstatic verse, contemplating the mysteries of man’s relationship with man, God and the universe of His creation, it was probably sung too. (Rumi definitely did and is credited with the origin of the ‘dance of the dervishes’). And this, to is jazz. Deyhim says: ‘I have sought to evoke and live the vibration, (of the Sufi material) for I believe the vibration is the essence of the Sufi way of traveling through time, in cosmic space, which transcends all other parameters.’
The phrase, ‘transcends all other parameters’ is key to the very heart of jazz. It is an artistic, musical expression of the trails and tribulations of modern man, who seems to have got virtually everything wrong. More importantly it is a musical expression that originates in the heart and the soul, to be given breath by the lips. This is the song that is sung with unbridled feeling that cannot be suppressed or put down. This is true vocalistics. And nobody today understands that better than Bobby McFerrin.
His incredible expedition into the realm of vocalistics began, he said somewhere in liner notes to one of his many joyous albums, when he heard a voice calling him to channel his talent where the voice has never gone before, as he was playing the piano. And he seemingly hasn’t paused for breath ever since! McFerrin brings a spirit of deep trust and joyful spontaneity to music – especially in his spectacular album, Circlesongs. Here is where McFerrin’s gift for teasing the sublime out of silence is most evident. The eight songs on the set spring from sounds improvised on the spot. McFerrin is assisted by twelve singers on the album. The rhythmic repetition of the sounds is what gives the songs their circular shape and chant like structure. ‘It’s primal, unadorned singing,’ McFerrin explains in the liner notes to the record. ‘I have always felt,’ he adds, ‘that singing a song without words makes one song a thousand songs because the people who hear it can bring their own stories to it.’ And this is exactly the impact of the music.
You hear creation – birth and life as it moves inexorably to death and renewal. You hear the pain and joy of existence of man’s journey on earth. And you hear it sung with a vital energy that you have never heard before.