Bobby McFerrin is happy about Obama, but don't expect him to sing his famous "Don't Worry, Be Happy" when he unleashes those rangy pipes at Overture Hall next Thursday night.
"Nope!" he says when I ask about it. End of subject. But who cares? The vital element is McFerrin's limber voice. He hasn't recorded an album in six years, but don't worry. There's no end to the tunes in this 10-time Grammy winner's prolific kit.
McFerrin rarely relies on lyrics. He's a flute, he's a tenor sax, he's a bassoon! Hush, his duet album with Yo Yo Ma, is a coup for pop classics, especially the Bach/Gounoud "Ave Maria." Ma plays the melody on cello while McFerrin does all the counterpoint, and the piece is packed with charm.
Lately McFerrin's been working live a lot with jazz piano giant Chick Corea. They're a whole quintet on Play, their 1992 bebop-to-fusion set on CD. McFerrin sings the bass, flute and trumpet parts, plus scats and lyrics, around Corea's savvy piano. But though Play works well, when it comes to jazz, live performance is part of the package.
On the other hand the African-flavored Circle Songs (1997), with McFerrin's 12-member Voicestra, shines like the sun. McFerrin's solos snake around repetitive choral patterns in call and response. It sounds like he's singing words, but he's not. "I do that purposely when I'm trying to convey a certain feeling for the notes to hang on," he says.
"Da da, de da," he sings into the phone. "That's different from 'ojaba obu abaká.' An ethnomusicologist once asked me how I knew the nearly extinct African languages she was studying. I didn't know them, I was just making it up. But it got me thinking about genetically encoded music."
What McFerrin does is all improv. Is it all jazz? Not necessarily so, he says. "Though I had a lesson once with Leonard Bernstein when I was working on Beethoven's Seventh. He says, 'You know, it's all jazz.'"
McFerrin breaks into a Beatles song to punctuate this point. "Lennie B, Lennie B," he sings, "speaking words of wisdom, Lennie B, Lennie B."
What's the trick? There isn't one, he says. "What I do as a musician is the simplest form of expression there is. You're driving the car and singing with the radio. You're a kid and making up songs about your mom putting too much peanut butter on your sandwich. You make up lullabies to your kid. People do that all the time. What's different is that I do it in front of people in a concert hall."
McFerrin's going solo and a cappella on this tour. He's not working with a fixed program. He's a master of audience interaction; he can riff on any theme you toss his way. Is there something the audience should rehearse in advance?
"Yeah, Handel's Messiah, we're gonna sing all of it," he laughs. "If you write that, someone will bring the score and we'll end up doing a duet."