2007-05-23 : Shut that bloody bouzouki up!

Once again, The Barbican comes up with the goods. It took a little convincing and good faith on their part, but I dragged Hannah, Paul and new UK arrival Kat along to see one of the world's most extraordinary and talented vocalists, Bobby McFerrin, and the results all round were an enthusiastic twelve thumbs up (that's 3 each).

From the second he walks on stage to no fanfare whatsoever it's obvious that though he packs serious musical credentials (frequently conducting symphony orchestras, serving as creative chair of the St Pauls Chamber Orchestra of Minnesota, and a string of heavyweight jazz collaborations and Grammy awards), you're looking at a guy who just really enjoys what he does – it's infectious, and it's inspiring. Going straight into his first piece, the performance is a fairly high, light & delicate vocal jam: McFerrin moving his fingers up and down the microphone as one would if playing a clarinet, and his eyes seemed unfocussed, off in the middle distance, as if he was in some kind of trancelike zone and was just searching for the next musical line. This is of course exactly what's going on, because the concert is to be more or less totally improvised.

He noodles around with various ideas, returning occasionally to a developing motif, or switching gear completely and moving on. Sometimes progressions seem to go nowhere or hit sour notes, but he never stops – he just builds them into part of a larger progression and makes the whole thing bautiful an amazing again. Switching gear from an African tribal sounding structure to a vocal trumpet/scat pattern, he boop-doop's his way through a couple of solo breaks punctuated by the trumpetlike melodyline, and then the trance breaks for a second as he smiles a huge wide grin & looks at us and says “That's really hard to do”, and then is straight back into the jam – shifting to a more sensible pace.

Suddenly the pitch deepens, and then deepens again, and the beat becomes syncopated with a gutsy bassy “BOMP” stab – the whole jam's just had a big slab of funk rubbed on it. Closing this up, he seems satisfied, listens for a second, then stops, and grins – our feeling is simultaneously one of amazement and relief, and the audience collapses into rapturous applause.

The beautiful thing about watching any form of improvisation is that alongside the skill of the performers is also the anxiousness of being in the moment and not knowing where it's going to go. Similarly it's something that is very difficult to recount to people following, as there's never going to be another performance quite like it, and the genius comes from reacting with what's in the moment. This was no exception – and outstanding musical pedigree was clear as he borrowed his way through musical structures to create sounds and move from one section to the next, and yet it was also so accessible, as it was fundamentally just a guy standing up on stage having fun and going “doo bee doo doo bip bip doo”.

Another feature of vocal improv is that anybody can do it, and he made use of that fact by getting the audience involved at various points. After twittering about and experimenting with the rhythm of a few phrases, he settled on the metre of “Climbing up the stairs, bacon and eggs”, and turned the audience into a 3 pitch ostinato, which he then worked from – it went from watching a concert, to being an active part of one (but without the embarassment of doing it in front of anyone)!

He embarked on a third improv, but about a minute in he dissolved in giggles and apologised that now he couldn't get “bacon and eggs” out of his mind, so it was time to introduce the other musicians.

The rest of the concert was course after course of musical treats – first a jam with Dhafer Youssef on bouzouki & some amazing wailing vocals (and a weird nasal scream which made me think of eagles crying, high in the mountains), Sheema Mukherjee on sitar & Kuljit Bhamra with some rich percussion & tabla. If you'd asked me before that if a vox/tabla/bouzouki/sitar jam could ever be bearable I'd have cast you a withering glance.

Next, Bobby called out his son Taylor John – you could sense an amazing connection between the two of them, as Bobby led off on a melodic break and Taylor John put on a top class beatboxing display. Initially he seemed a little self-conscious, but as the two vocal gymnasts started to toy with each other the nerves dropped and we were treated to an organic dance of rhythm section and melody, with not an instrument in sight.

The last co-improvisers to join McFerrin on stage were the St Luke's Community Choir, which seemed a slightly ambitious choice for musical improv, however he guided them through creating a background musical tapestry and then played over the top of that. As if a choir wasn't enough, he added the audience into the mix, and the whole building became a huge melting pot of sound ably and masterfully puppeteered by a happy looking man with dreadlocks.

The concert series was 2 nights, both featuring the choir – however judging by the terrified looks on their faces they weren't expecting what happened next… McFerrin climbed on the seats between the choristers, improvising tunes, and occasionally placing the microphone in front of a singer in order that they improvise along with him. Some were better than others, but all were fun. The audience seemed to find the choir's discomfort (and subsequent coping) entertaining, until McFerrin turned around & dismounted the chairs, prowled forward, and made his way down into the first couple of rows – singing all the while. Suddenly the mood grew to one of tension as we realised that he was going to pick out punters to sing into the microphone with him! To their credit, the 4 people he approached gave it a go – possibly due to his calming & encouraging presence – and did extremely well under those fairly trying circumstances. I almost felt disappointed when he didn't come in our direction, although it was about 88% relief to 12% disappointment.

The obligatory encore happened, with him coming out & sitting on front of stage with legs hanging over and saying “OK, what's on your minds?”. It was obvious we wanted more (in honesty I think we could have listened to him all night), so he called for requests (and very reasonably and matter-of-factly explained the reasons why he doesn't sing “Don't Worry, Be Happy” any more), and gave us “Blackbird” and “Drive” – both available on the Spontaneous Inventions DVD – and was treated to a second standing ovation. He returned to the stage once more, sat down & said “What do you guys want to talk about?” – making it clear that he wasn't going to sing any more, but he was happy to do a bit of Q&A, which I thought was real decent.

The best thing I think he said was when faced with the question “How do you make a career from following your dream?”, and his immediate response was “First of all, make sure it's *your* dream.” – bloody handy bit of advice, that. It just gives you some idea of what the guy's like – not many world class performers would finish a gig with a sit down and chat (although some of the questions were clearly floated by overly excited fans, such as “What is the meaning of life?”), and it just increased my already considerable respect for him.

A pair of questions which I thought were bloody pertinent were “Do you have perfect pitch?”, and “How do you get started?” – his responses being that he had “pretty good pitch, but not perfect”, and that all it takes to get good at vocal improv is to play around doing it; initially starting off for 10 minutes a day, and just go from there. He emphasised that it's just playing, and extrapolating from that – as with other improv forms – the reason why a lot of people think they can't do it is because they're scared of failing at it. What he quickly conveyed to us was that it's not a matter of being good or bad, and that if you're having fun with it and trying different things, then it's going to be enjoyable. Pretty bloody poignant, if you ask me.

I realise this review's gone on a little bit longer than your average concert report, but the point of this website is primarily a diary for me, and as this concert was one of the best I've ever been to I've made the executive decision that I want to remember as much of it as I can. So there.

It just remains for me to recommend thoroughly that if you ever get the opportunity to go to one of these concerts, take advantage of that privelege. I guarantee it'll be SO much more than “you know, the Don't Worry Be Happy guy”.

(photos sourced from http://aworan.wordpress.com/, incidentally)