Bobby McFerrin – “Vocabularies” – Emarcy

by | Mar 26, 2010 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Bobby McFerrin – “Vocabularies” – Emarcy, 64:00 ***** [Distrib. by Universal]:

Over the course of a career spanning three decades, Bobby McFerrin has worn many hats. From fronting his band on his debut album, to the pyrotechnics of his amazing live solo performances, his choral work with Voicestra, duos with Chick Corea and Yo Yo Ma, (not to mention simultaneously singing with and conducting symphony orchestras,) McFerrin has demonstrated a restless and far ranging musical intelligence which is constantly in search of new musical turf to explore.

Seven years in the making, “Vocabularies” is certainly the most ambitious McFerrin project to date and may very well be his magnum opus.  For it is on this album that virtually all of McFerrin’s wide-ranging musical interests are brought together in perfect balance.  In a way, all of McFerrin’s prior output has led up to this moment, the realization of a lifetime of artistic achievement.

I have always felt that the one thing missing from McFerrin’s writing was the ability to take his fresh ideas and fully develop them harmonically and compositionally. Fortunately for all of us, McFerrin has found the perfect collaborator in composer/arranger and conductor, Roger Treece, whose prodigious gifts give McFerrin’s ideas the harmonic and developmental lift they so deserve. The two worked together closely, first gathering McFerrin’s ideas from past albums, recorded improvisations etc, weaving them into substantial compositions that average about ten minutes in length.

Each piece is a journey unto itself, in which African, Eastern European, Western classical, R&B and pop elements bump up against each other, blending and recombining in a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of harmony and rhythm.  Singers were brought together from various disciplines including world, classical and R&B to form a versatile virtual choir, facilitating he ability to create unprecedented choral timbres. I’m told that there were over 1400 vocal tracks in all. Lyrics were written in everything from Arabic to Zulu, comprised of 15 languages.  Talk about cracking the Tower of Babel!

Superficially, this album harkens back to the vocal complexities of Medicine Music, one of Bobby’s most satisfying efforts, in which he overdubbed his voice to create an a cappella chorus which employed a minimum of percussion to augment the grooves. In a way, ” Vocabularies” is a sort of “Medicine Man” on steroids. In fact three of the seven tracks on this album are re-workings of songs off of that album. But it’s as though they’ve gone from black-and-white to color, from animated short to epic film.  Consider the opening track, "Baby." Conceived as an innocent nursery rhyme with an African folk feel in its original form, here it is turned into a convoluted harmonic maze, constantly modulating and playfully contorting, yet always returning to its original motif and key. The result is a feeling of expansive and deep childlike joy that is the hallmark of McFerrin’s best work.

Other highlights include “Say Ladeo,” a joyous romp with an infectious chorus that comes as close to a pop tune as anything gets on the album. It’s a pretty thing that would be a pleasure to hear on the radio, although in this day and age it is unlikely that an a cappella confection such as this will hit the top 40 (as “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” once did) even in the pared-down version found on YouTube.

Another surprise is “Brief Eternity”, the album’s closer. It is a serious piece of Western classical music, supported here by full orchestra. Roger Treece’s impressionistic orchestration evokes Debussy’s Nocturnes, especially “Sirenes”, occasionally bringing to mind contemporary composer John Taverner’s chorale sonorities. A spiritual longing permeates this lush piece, rising to quiet ecstasy in its satisfying finale.

The most profound piece for this listener is “Messages,” a tour de force which effortlessly serves up elements of Eastern European, Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Western classical in a rich contrapuntal stew, seasoned with odd meters and exotic percussion.  It is in this sophisticated composition that one begins to hear what may be a glimpse into the future of music in the 21st century, a future in which separate world music traditions come together as equals, each having its own unique voice, blending into a unified chorus in perfect harmony.

Considering the state of the world today in which civil discourse is becoming archaic, a world in which nations squabble with one another like ill-tempered children, where the heart of barbarism still shapes the body politic in many countries, Bobby McFerrin has given us a profound vision of a utopian society in which all members are respected and valued, a future where beauty and peace reign supreme.  

In short, “Vocabularies” is Bobby McFerrin’s masterpiece.

1. Baby
2. Say Ladeo
3. Wailers
4. Messages
5. The Garden
6. He Ran to the Train
7. Brief Eternity

 — Brian Whistler

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