For some music listeners, singer/songwriter/conductor/composer Bobby McFerrin is a one-hit wonder.
The peppy, upbeat tune Don’t Worry, Be Happy, from his 1988 album Simple Pleasures, reached number one on the Billboard Top 100, the only a cappella song to ever achieve that feat, and spawned a lighthearted video featuring Robin Williams. The song also garnered McFerrin three of his 10 Grammys, winning Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
But if that song is all you know about McFerrin, you’ve missed out on a few decades’ worth of his eclectic, serpentine musical journey, which includes albums and tours with jazz artists such as pianist Chick Corea; work with classical legend Yo-Yo Ma; original symphonic works; his touring improv-based, a cappella vocal orchestra Voicestra; and the ambitious vocal project VOCAbuLarieS.
McFerrin’s current tour, coming to E.J. Thomas Hall on Tuesday, is for his soon-to-be released new album spirityouall. The album is a collection of seven classic spirituals, a few McFerrin originals, and a cover of Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, all re-imagined in his eclectic style that includes jazz, Americana and blues. Guests include Esperanza Spalding, who duets on three of the album’s 13 tracks including a laid-back, bluesy take on Whole World.
The album was partly inspired by his father, opera singer Robert McFerrin Sr., who died in 2006. He was the first black man to sign a contract with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and was renowned for his interpretations of Negro spirituals.
For the show, McFerrin will be performing with a full band as eclectic as its leader. Besides the standard rhythm section, the multitalented band includes many of the instruments heard on the album such as lap steel guitar, violin, mandolin, accordion and bass ukulele.
Here are nine questions McFerrin answered by email:
Q: After the layered, complex arrangements of “VOCAbuLarieS,” and the classical/collaboration albums, what made you want to switch gears back to a full band and only (primarily) your voice? “VOCAbuLarieS” was a monumental project.
A: It took eight years! Roger (composer, arranger and conductor Roger Treece) and Linda (Goldstein, his longtime manager/producer) wanted to take the vocabulary I’d developed as an improviser and make it available to other singers, write it down, show how it could translate into other voices. Roger was responsible for a lot of the orchestration and development. The album is almost like a movie score.
After that I wanted to go the other way, explore the gritty side of my sound, the looseness of playing around with the time.
Q: The album contains spirituals and gospel tunes. Was it inspired at all by your father’s work? Was there some specific reason internally or externally (times is tough) that made now seem like the time to take on this project?
A: The idea has been around for a long time. My faith is a big part of my daily life, a big part of the way I approach singing and relating to an audience. And of course my father is an inspiration, but I couldn’t sing these songs the way he would sing them. He already did that better than I ever could. I had to find my own way. I guess it was finally time.
Q: How much fun as a father and musician is it to record/tour with your kids? Does being “Mr. McFerrin, band leader” ever get in the way of being “Dad”?
A: Finding balance is a daily task. Going out on the road, singing for and with audiences all over the world — it’s a great privilege, and I love doing it. But I’m always homesick. When my kids were little it was especially tough.
Now they are young adults with their own careers. I’m proud of them all. My middle son Jevon has a really good voice, but he’s an actor. The other two are musicians, and I’ve gotten to work with them both. Taylor and I are doing a duo show in Amsterdam in June. And Madison, my youngest, is joining my band on a few shows this season. I won’t lie, it’s pretty great.
Q: Why did you want to work with Esperanza Spalding? Does working with talented young artists give you any kind of creative/spiritual boost? Or just a fan?
A: I don’t think about old or young. Working with Chick Corea gives me a huge spiritual boost. Last year I did a tour with him, and people kept asking me if we sounded so at home with each other because we’ve worked together for so many years. But it was like that from the very beginning. We just get each other.
I’ve worked with Esperanza a few times now, and the place we go together is very, very playful. We’re like little kids in the sandbox. Gotta love that.
Q: The program for the evening appears to be dedicated to “spirityouall,” but you’re known for improvising your sets to some degree. Is there something you’re trying to convey with a show that makes you stick to the new album, or should we expect a musical surprise or two?
A: We sent out the song titles, because we do like to play tunes from the record, but it says “subject to change!!” It’s really important to me to go where the spirit moves me. There are always two or three or four surprises. Or more.
Q: You are often referred to as having a “restless musical spirit.” Is there anything/anyone left on your musical bucket list you’d like to work with, or a genre into which you’d like to delve?
A: Yes. But I’m not talking. I don’t want to jinx anything.
Q: The arrangements and instrumentation of the traditional songs are all over the place (even for you) and many are pretty rustic/Americana. Can you tell me a little about the process of picking and arranging the cover songs?
A: Gil Goldstein (who co-produced, wrote the arrangements, and plays accordion and keyboards), Linda Goldstein (who co-produced and who’s been my manager and producer since 1980), and I spend a lot of time talking about it. We talked about the songs my father recorded, we talked about songs lots of people know and like to sing together. We talked about the sound we wanted. We listened to a lot of things, considered a lot of possibilities.
Q: “Woe” is a great song. What/who inspired that song?
A: Isaiah 10:1-4. Sometimes when I read the Bible I find myself singing. I was thinking about that passage, studying it, and the song started to happen. It’s been around for years, I used to perform it with Voicestra. It was great to record it with the band.
Q: Is there something particularly exciting or challenging playing/performing new music with a relatively new band to an audience that has yet to hear it?
A: Well, it wasn’t planned that way. We hoped the album would be finished earlier and released before the tour. But I’ve been loving playing with the band on the road. After so many solo concerts I’m just wallowing in it, all this beautiful sound. We’ve become a family really quickly.
And maybe it’s easier to experiment with the material, play around, let it develop, when people don’t already have an idea about how it “should” sound from the version they’ve heard on the album. Who knows? But we’re having a really great time. Playing music is always exciting and challenging.