McFerrin defies categories

MUSIC MAKER

February 28, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Bobby McFerrin

When: Sunday shows at 5 and 8 p.m.

Where: Stephens Hall, Towson State University.

Tickets: $22.50.

Call: (410) 830-2787 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets. Where would you file Bobby McFerrin?

That question has been tormenting people -- music fans in general and record store clerks in particular -- for years now. Given his Grammy awards for jazz singing, it's tempting just to put him in that pigeonhole, and let his reputation rest on albums like "The Voice" and "Spontaneous Inventions."

But that overlooks the pop success he had with "Simple Pleasures," the album which produced the chart-topping (and Grammy-winning) "Don't Worry, Be Happy." And now with "Hush," a collaboration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma that finds McFerrin singing "Flight of the Bumblebee" and Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise," the singer seems to be moving into the classical market.

Or is he?

"I was at a record store today here in New York," he says over the phone, "and they had 'Hush' in the jazz section of the store. Which is kind of interesting. I understand in some stores they have it in the pop bins, and of course it's in the classical bins."

Isn't that kind of confusing? No, answers McFerrin, "It just means that more people will see the record."

Besides, categories don't mean much to this singer, who will play two shows at Towson State's Stephens Hall Sunday. (He also appears at the Maryland Theatre in Hagerstown tonight at 8. Call (301) 790-2000 for tickets and information).

"I never thought of myself as a pop performer, or a classical one," he says. "In the beginning, I thought of myself as a jazz singer, because I was singing a lot of jazz -- spent a lot of time in the jazz world. But even then, I always had my sights on just music in general."

Perhaps that's why it's so easy for him to distance himself from the extreme reactions -- positive and negative -- that sprang up in the wake of "Don't Worry, Be Happy," a song that was embraced by George Bush (over McFerrin's objections) and attacked by Public Enemy (in the single "Fight the Power").

"What can I do about it?" says McFerrin. "That's just what happened.

"It was just a very simple tune that I wrote one day out of the blue," he explains. "It took off. People latched onto it; it was played to death. Most people don't think of me beyond that. In fact, it would surprise you how many people think I'm from Jamaica just because I used that accent in the tune. Especially now that I have dreadlocks, that helps the image, you know.

"Certainly there's been some backlash," he acknowledges. "But what amazes me the most is the backlash I get from people who think that I have too much fun onstage. They can't take me seriously, because I have too much fun. That blows me away. Like, I've got to tone my fun down a little bit. I've actually read articles about that."

Fun, to McFerrin's way of thinking, should be at the heart of music-making. That's not to say all music should be light-hearted and frivolous, of course -- far from it. But what, he asks, is wrong with actively enjoying the act of making music?

"I talk about Mozart along these very lines," McFerrin says. "I say, 'How can you say that, when you listen to Mozart and this guy's having so much fun with music?' It's amazing. He's just beside himself with joy in his music. You're saying I'm having too much fun? You should go check Mozart."

McFerrin's interest in Mozart, by the way, isn't just academic. As it turns out, the singer has spent the last several summers at Tanglewood, studying conducting.

"The conducting came about just out of a desire to try it," he explains. "It was a fantasy. I did it the first time for my 40th birthday, and I loved it. So I've been doing some guest conducting, and I decided that if I can conduct about 15 to 20 orchestras a year I'd be happy."

McFerrin admits that he doesn't have a lot of time to devote to studying orchestral scores. "If I was conducting exclusively, I could," he says. "Right now I'm working on Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony, which is, wow, what a piece of music that is. I've conducted Beethoven's 7th, Mozart's 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,' and some shorter pieces, stuff by Bizet, Vivaldi and Bach.

"Even in the conducting, I like to have fun," he adds. "One of my teachers says, 'Oh, you shouldn't smile, because if you smile, they won't take you seriously.' Now, how can you not smile when you're conducting the third movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony? How can you not smile when you're conducting something like the second movement of Tchaikovsky's 6th, or the Eine Kleine Nachtmusik?

"I mean, I smile, and the reaction I get from the musicians is, 'Oh, it's so wonderful to see a conductor smiling on the podium!' "

As much as he enjoys conducting, though, McFerrin's ultimate ambition is composition. "Next year I'm going to start writing an opera," he says. "I've wanted to write one for many years. Starting around March '93, I'm going to stop touring -- except for some scattered conducting dates so I don't get rusty -- and I'm going to take about 16 to 18 months, and write an opera.

"I have a story, which I'm not talking about yet; I'm looking for a librettist. But the San Francisco Opera Company has commissioned me to write this opera, and it will be performed in June of '95."

And after that? "I think I'd like to write another one."

In fact, he says, "Composing and conducting are pretty much what I'd like to be doing, say, five years from now. I will be 42 in about two weeks, and I'm getting tired of touring. I've got three kids and I want to spend some time with them. Touring as a conductor has been really, really wonderful, because you actually get to unpack your suitcase for a few days."

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