For decades Bobby McFerrin has broken all the rules. The 10-time Grammy winner has blurred the distinction between pop music and fine art, goofing around barefoot in the world's finest concert halls, exploring uncharted vocal territory, inspiring a whole new generation of a cappella singers and the beatbox movement. His latest album, spirityouall, is a bluesy, feel-good recording, an unexpected move from the music-industry rebel who singlehandedly redefined the role of the human voice with his a cappella hit “Don't Worry, Be Happy,” his collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, Chick Corea and the Vienna Philharmonic, his improvising choir Voicestra, and his legendary solo vocal performances.
It's been the quietest and most polite of revolutions. Bobby McFerrin was always an unlikely pop star. He created a lasting ear-worm of a #1 hit early in his career. Then he calmly went back to pursuing his own iconoclastic musical journey, improvising on national television, singing melodies without words, spontaneously inventing parts for 60,000 choral singers in a stadium in Germany, ignoring boundaries of genre, defying all expectations. Most people don't know that Bobby came from a family of singers. Bobby's father, the Metropolitan Opera baritone Robert McFerrin, Sr., provided the singing voice for Sydney Poitier for the film version of Porgy & Bess, and his mother Sara was a fine soprano soloist and voice teacher. Bobby grew up surrounded by music of all kinds. He remembers conducting Beethoven on the stereo at three, hiding under the piano while his father and mother coached young singers, dancing around the house to Louie Armstrong, Judy Garland, Etta Jones and Fred Astaire. He played the clarinet seriously as a child, but he began his musical career as a pianist, at the age of 14. He led his own jazz groups, studied composition, toured with the show band for the Ice Follies, played for dance classes. Then one day he was walking home and suddenly he understood that he had been a singer all along.
Bobby's history as an instrumentalist and bandleader is key to understanding his innovative approach to mapping harmony and rhythm (as well as melody) with his voice. "I can't sing everything at once," he says, "but I can hint at it so the audience hears even what I don't sing." All that pioneer spirit and virtuosity has opened up a great big sky full of new options for singers; so have Bobby's experiments in multi-tracking his voice (“Don't Worry, Be Happy” has seven separate, over-dubbed vocal tracks; Bobby's choral album VOCAbuLarieS (with Roger Treece) has thousands). But virtuosity isn't the point. "I try not to ‘perform’ onstage," says Bobby. "I try to sing the way I sing in my kitchen, because I just can't help myself. I want audiences to leave the theatre and sing in their own kitchens the next morning. I want to bring audiences into the incredible feeling of joy and freedom I get when I sing. "
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Bobby McFerrin surprises us again, bringing it all back home with his new album, spirityouall. Now Bobby invites us to sit on the stoop awhile and listen as he throws some unexpected new ingredients into the melting pot and reinvents Americana. He invites us back to the great folk tradition of lifting our voices to sing together through life's trials and triumphs.
spirityouall features beloved familiar tunes like "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands" and "Every Time I Feel The Spirit" alongside original songs which explore Bobby's everyday search for grace, wisdom, and freedom. The new material ranges from a celebratory hoedown (“Rest”) to a polemic anthem (“Woe”), to a down and dirty blues setting of Psalm 25:15. This project embraces Bobby's folk, rock, and blues influences without abandoning his fearless improvisational approach or his never-ending exploration of the human voice. He moves seamlessly between lyrics and wordless lines, trading phrases with his band, inviting the audience to sing along. Bobby loves to sing this music, and it shows: spirityouall raises the roof with joyful grooves.
spirityouall continues Bobby's life-long quest to integrate all the influences of the musical universe. But as in so many great American tales, sometimes it turns out that everything one is searching for is in one’s own backyard. The project honors the legacy of Bobby's father, the great operatic baritone Robert McFerrin, Sr., the first African-American to sign a contract with the Metropolitan Opera Company and a renowned interpreter of the American Negro Spiritual. "I always thought that someday I'd sing these songs," Bobby says, "and that I'd have to find a way of doing it that was completely different from my father's approach. I think the idea has been kicking around for at least a couple of decades. And it was finally time." Three of the traditional numbers featured on spirityouall—the opening track “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Fix Me Jesus”—also appeared on the senior McFerrin's 1957 album Deep River, but similarities end there. The spirituals are about liberation and courage, the human condition, the pioneering spirit, the search for strength in the face of adversity, and the journey toward a better place, and Bobby's versions reach for new territory.
spirityouall is a deeply personal statement for Bobby McFerrin. “I couldn’t do anything without faith," he says. "I couldn’t open up my eyes, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t sing. What I want everyone to experience at the end of my concerts is...this sense of rejoicing. I don't want the audience to be blown away by what I do, I want them to have this sense of real joy, from the depths of their being. Then you open up a place where grace can come in." Lift your voice, open your heart, and sing along.