McFerrin to perform ‘spirityouall’ songs

by Katherine McConnell | 4/9/14 5:27pm

Famous for his 1988 Billboard chart-topper, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Bobby McFerrin has had an accomplished career as a vocalist and conductor, winning 10 Grammy Awards. On Saturday, McFerrin comes to Dartmouth to perform a sold-out evening show in the Hopkins Center’s Spaulding Auditorium.

Known for his impressive vocal improvisations and tendency to perform a cappella, McFerrin will perform the 13 tracks from his most recent album, “spirityouall.” All of the songs were arranged by Gil Goldstein, and five songs include original words and music by McFerrin.

The songs reflect a reimagining and rearrangement of traditional spirituals, accompanied by a band featuring piano, violin, guitar, drums and mandolin. The songs are tinged with folk, rock and blues music, in addition to the classical, jazz and world music influences more common to McFerrin’s work.

McFerrin said some of his musical interests have evolved with time. Now, he said, he is more interested in “quieter sounds, quieter moods.”

“I think I expected that as I got older I’d lose a little vocal range or flexibility,” he said in an email. “But that’s not the case.”

Though he collaborates with many instrumental performers, McFerrin continues to perform and record many unaccompanied singing tracks, which is rare. In such songs, McFerrin provides percussive effects and makes large jumps in pitch, turning the a cappella performance into a rowdy feat of vocal experimentation.

Audience interaction and collaboration changes how he performs onstage, he said. He hopes audience members will be moved to sing along and express the joy, hope and faith they hear in his music.

McFerrin said he can feel the differences between audiences.

“You can feel differences of culture and mood, and it changes the music making experience,” McFerrin said.

McFerrin said that faith has always influenced his work, calling music a kind of prayer. He emphasized that his shows are not about performance but about sharing his music with a listening community.

“I try not to perform, I try to be myself onstage, to sing the way I sing in my kitchen,” McFerrin said. “I love following the music where it takes me and sharing that adventure with the audience.”

McFerrin described the album as “just another step on the never-ending journey to try to make the music I hear in my head.”

“It’s so directly an homage to my dad, who made his own great album singing the spirituals,” McFerrin said. “But of course he’s always been one of my biggest influences. And it’s different because these songs talk about prayer and God and faith.”

Nate Graves ’13, a graduate assistant and artistic associate at the Hopkins Center, said he attended a performance of McFerrin’s “spirityouall” in Boston last year. Graves, a longtime admirer of McFerrin’s work, said “spirityouall” gave him a new appreciation for traditional spirituals.

“Just hearing the different melodic and harmonic adaptations that [McFerrin] infused into the songs really brought so much life to the spirituals,” Graves said.

Born in Manhattan to two singers — his father was the first black person to sign a contract with the Metropolitan Opera Company — McFerrin grew up around music. He released his first album in 1982 at the age of 32.

In 1987, McFerrin performed the theme song to “The Cosby Show” and music for a Cadbury chocolate commercial, but his career took off the following year, when he released megahit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” the first a cappella piece to reach No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard charts.

He has performed with Yo-Yo Ma, Chick Corea and the Vienna Philharmonic and founded an experimental vocal choir, Voicestra, in 1989.

McFerrin delved into conducting orchestras in 1994, accepting a creative chair position at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Music professor Bill Summers, who is teaching a class in American music this term, said he has encouraged his students to attend McFerrin’s concert.

McFerrin last came to campus in the spring of 2005 as a Montgomery Fellow. He said he enjoys visiting campus and the opportunity to work with college musicians.