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Published: Thursday, 1/15/2009

Don t worry, Bobby McFerrin s in Toledo

BY SALLY VALLONGO
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Bobby McFerrin will perform with the Toledo Symphony Friday and Saturday. Bobby McFerrin will perform with the Toledo Symphony Friday and Saturday.
URS FLUEELER / AP Enlarge

Timing in music and in life really is everything.

Here we are, Toledo and the nation and the world, teetering on the brink of financial disintegration, with wars old and new sending dark smoke signals into the atmosphere itself increasingly threatened by pollution waiting with bated breath for next Tuesday s historic Presidential inauguration.

And guess who s coming to town?

Bobby McFerrin.

That s right, good old Mr. Don t Worry, Be Happy himself.

If ever this planet needed a dose of his infectious musical optimism, it s right now.

And Toledo s the place, the only place, to catch it live this weekend.

McFerrin, the vocal phenom whose musical reach is more global than NAFTA, more diverse than the United Nations, and always fresher than this morning s doughnuts, is to return to the Peristyle for two concerts tomorrow and Saturday evenings.

In his humble, organic, and serendipitous style, he ll lead the Toledo Symphony through two Mozart symphonies No. 29 in a Major and No. 40 in G Minor and then add something even Mozart would have marveled at: McFerrin s astonishing vocal improvisations.

Like Mozart, McFerrin came up in a musical family. Unlike Mozart, McFerrin s talent bloomed much later. And, at 58, Bobby has outlived Wolfgang by nearly two dozen years.

The son of two singers his dad, Robert McFerrin, Sr., a baritone, became the first black singer to join the Metropolitan Opera as a regular; his mother, Sara Copper McFerrin, also sang professionally Robert Jr., born in 1950, studied piano as a boy and dreamed of a career in music.

He studied music at California State and Cerritos colleges and launched a career on the road accompanying the Ice Follies and a series of cover bands and cabaret acts.

But, as he told the Modesto, Calif., Bee newspaper last year, I always had a nagging suspicion that I wasn t a pianist. You really have to be convinced of something before you can do it well. One day when I was 27 years old, I decided to sing. The moment I made that decision, I knew I was a singer.

McFerrin then was working in New Orleans with The Astral Projection, a vocal group modeled after the Fifth Dimension. Moving to San Francisco with the group, Bobby met Bill Cosby, who set him up with a gig at the 1980 Playboy Festival.

Inspired by Keith Jarrett, the pianist whose artistic reach merges classical, jazz, experimental, and spiritual musical styles, McFerrin began exploring his instrument, a voice capable of sounding good over four octaves (most of us are lucky to cover two octaves).

With a family to support, McFerrin kept his night jobs, spending private time developing what would become his signature style: a smooth, pure vocal sound that has the resonance of a cello and the speed and flexibility of a flute. Using various parts of his body, he adds a distinctive percussive element to his singing.

I didn t listen to any singers at all for the first couple of years. I was afraid they d make too much of an impression on my own technique, he told the Bee. I d listen to instrumentalists not to copy their sound but to get a sense of what a melodic instrument does in terms of harmony.

He also had the rich tradition of vocalese wordless vocal improvisation developed by jazz musicians early in the 20th century and brought forward by scat singers Blossom Dearie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Toledo native Jon Hendricks, whose group, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, inspired classical musician Ward Swingle to apply the jazz style to classical music with his Swingle Singers.

Pinnacles of instrumental singing were reached by Al Jarreau and Bobby McFerrin, whose vocal gymnastics defy belief, writes Swingle on his Web site. It s interesting to note, however that when pioneers like Jarreau and McFerrin appear, other singers eventually find a way to imitate at least some of the things they do, thus pushing the overall development a bit further.

McFerrin made his debut as a vocalist in 1983 and never turned back. He developed a 90-minute, no-break show that continues as his format today, whether he s doing a solo performance, leading his own vocal ensemble, or working with choirs, orchestras, and audiences.

McFerrin s fame was established with the release of his signature tune, Don t Worry, Be Happy, in 1988. Since then, he has won 10 Grammy awards and his recordings have more than 20 million copies. Moreover, the singer s restless talent has pushed him to collaborate with classical stars including cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Vienna Philharmonic and jazz icons such as Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock.

Through it all, McFerrin told the Associated Press in 2003, he was inspired by his father s singing.

His work influenced everything I do musically. When I direct a choir, I go for his sound. . . . I cannot do anything without me hearing his voice.

Although McFerrin, Sr., never reached the level of operatic success for which he had trained, he did provide the singing for the 1959 film of Porgy and Bess, the Gershwin/Heyward opera.

And when McFerrin, Jr., recorded his 1990 album, Medicine Music, his father performed on it. He also appeared as a soloist with the St. Louis Symphony in 1993 when his son was guest conductor.

Always an advocate of musical education and exposure for everyone, McFerrin often pulls in audiences to participate by singing an aria over which he improvises, holding and fingering his microphone as if it were an instrument.

McFerrin s humble approach to conducting may strike some as unorthodox, but it s a position he has developed working with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

I didn t come up through the ranks, so it took me a while to be myself and not put on airs that I am a conductor. I m not a conductor, I m a singer who conducts, he told the Bee.

During his 2005 performance in Toledo, he worked with students from Toledo schools and, during his concert in the Peristyle, did an improvised duet with Hendricks, who lives in Toledo and is on the University of Toledo faculty.

Coming for McFerrin this year is a new choral album, Vocalbularies, created for use by singing groups.

Bobby McFerrin will appear with the Toledo Symphony at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle. Tickets are $25-52 at 419-246-8000 or toledosymphony.com.



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