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Bobby McFerrin in London, May 20-21

John Eyles By

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Bobby McFerrin with LSO St. Luke's Community Choir
Barbican Centre Residency
London, England
May 20-21, 2007
April in London was the hottest and driest on record. But May was something else: cool, grey and rainy. It felt like the end of a summer that wasn't. So by the time Bobby McFerrin played the Barbican, we needed some sunshine to lift us. And we weren't disappointed.
McFerrin was the latest in a line-up of artists to do a residency at The Barbican (an impressive list of jazz notables including Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock preceded him), each given the time to perform in different contexts and to show different facets of his talent. McFerrin, especially, proved a mercurial performer, so to see him over two nights in the company of a procession of guest performers, was to witness the core of his art as well as some of its outer reaches. The core is McFerrin alone on stage with a mike, and this was how he opened both nights, giving a stunning display of what his voice can do on its own. Starting by singing in a pure, clear treble voice, he was soon embellishing the primary melodic line with bass accompaniment plus his trademark chest percussion and occasional falsetto leaps. The total effect was like listening to a vocalist with rhythm section and supporting soloists—and all out of that one mouth.
Although McFerrin sang versions of some well-known songs—including "Blackbird," "Thinkin' About Your Body," "Simple Pleasures," even "Somewhere Over The Rainbow —it was his skills as an improviser that wowed the audience. As a performer, he's as relaxed as they come, comfortable with himself, a smile never far from his lips, safe in the knowledge that he has the audience in the palm of his hand. That safety allows him to take off on flights of fancy as well as take genuine risks, the key to great improvisation. As often as not, he would include the audience in his improvisations, using them as a backing chorus or for call-and- response exchanges. He expected—and got—the audience to be able to sing back just about anything that he sang to them. An especially magical moment came when—in a typically swift u-turn—the versatile performer abandoned "I Want You/She's So Heavy in mid flow and switched to "Ave Maria," using the audience's vocal talents; judging by the soaring ethereal sounds that swirled around the auditorium, there were many choir members in that audience.

The guest musicians, upon joining McFerrin, further drew out his eclecticism: he proved just as likely to draw inspiration from Bach as the blues, from the Beatles as bebop. A performer who seems at home with any musical culture, he demonstrated his command of different idioms during duets with Gavino Murgia's resonant throat singing, Sheema Mukherjee's classical sitar and Dhafer Youssef's oud and incantations; in each instance, McFerrin's responses were not only sympathetic with the unique style: they enhanced the music.

However, the highlight of the each night's show was closer to home—the duo of McFerrin and his eldest son. Indeed, Taylor McFerrin is a mean human beat-box, capable of reproducing an array of bass, percussion and studio effects with unerring fidelity. The sounds of father and son weaved around each other in a rhythmically complex display that brought a whooping standing ovation. Expect to hear more from Taylor McFerrin.

At the end of the second night, in lieu of an encore Bobby McFerrin came out for a brief question and answer session with the audience. Out of several noteworthy answers, one especially deserves repeating: "Anyone can improvise. All you have to do is sing any notes for ten minutes. After two minutes, there'll be voices in your head telling you to stop, but keep going for ten minutes. Do it every day, and after a while you'll start shaping what you sing." Probably good advice—and maybe it's true that anyone can improvise. But one thing is certain. No one improvises like Bobby McFerrin.

Since his visit, summer is back. The sun hasn't stopped shining in London and the temperature has soared. Can't be a coincidence!

Personnel: Gavio Murgio, Gwilym Simcock, Kuljit Bhamra, Sheema Mukherjee, Dhafer Youssef and Taylor McFerrin

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