Daring McFerrin

April 29, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

What kind of singer is Bobby McFerrin?

"It really depends on the situation," he says. "Because I like so many different kinds of music, it's really difficult to put me in one room and lock the door. I don't remember what city it was, but once out in front of the auditorium I was about to perform in, it said 'Bobby McFerrin: Jazz Singer.' And I took a marker and crossed 'Jazz' out, so it just said 'Singer.' "

He laughs, and adds, "I like that. It's a broader definition."

Broad definitions seem appropriate for McFerrin. Although he originally came to prominence as a jazz singer, he's done a little bit of everything -- pop ("Don't Worry, Be Happy"), movie soundtracks (including last year's Grammy-winning rendition of "The Pink Panther Theme"), even classical crossover ("Hush" with Yo-Yo Ma). Yet regardless of the stylistic tack he takes, he always maintains his musical identity.

"I worked really hard trying to find out who I was as a singer," he says, over the phone from his San Francisco home. "In the very beginning, when I became a singer, I purposely stayed away from listening to a lot of singers. I workshopped and turned on the tape recorder just to see what I sounded like, because I knew that I could be easily influenced by someone else's style or phrasing.

"I just wanted to make sure that I had a strong base of my own, because I could easily flounder by going out and just copping somebody else's licks. I used to do that as a piano player, and I knew that wasn't going to get me anywhere. So my singing had to be very, very different."

McFerrin also likes to keep his music fresh, and relishes the challenge of doing something new. That's one reason he's taken the unusual step of trying to put his biggest hit, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," behind him.

"I don't sing the song anymore," he says. "In some ways, it's like a cute dog lifting its leg on your legs, you know? All the time.

"Actually, I was going to say I haven't sung the song in about six or seven years, but I actually sang it the other day. I was in #F Charlotte, and I did a show for kids. They requested it, and I can't say no to kids.

"So I sang it, and that was it. That was probably the first time I'd sung it in years. People say, 'Oh, I'm so sorry you didn't sing your hit.' And my explanation is, 'Well, I sang it 5,000 times, and I got tired of singing it.' It's like asking Picasso to paint the same kind of pictures, or Chaplin to make the same kind of movies. They don't do that.

"It's hard, though, to break the mold," he adds. "You have to forcibly, I think, at times say you're going to do something else."

His current tour, for instance, is with Hard Choral, a group he describes as "basically an improv group." Says McFerrin: "The pieces are structured improvisations. I wanted to try different kinds of vocal techniques and vocal sounds, and just ideas. Things that we could try with the voice. Improvising with words, and without.

"So the pieces are structured improvisations. It's easy to start a piece and take it various places, then begin another piece and take it to the same places. If you have limitations to keep you confined -- when you tell your singers that they can only sing these particular kinds of phrases or these notes -- it makes it very difficult, but also it produces a certain kind of sound, an overall feeling and effect."

As challenging as that is, McFerrin is looking ahead to tougher tests of his creativity. "At the end of the year, I'm going to do some solo concerts, which I haven't done in a while," he says. "And I decided to record them for a new solo voice album, because it's been 10 years since my last solo voice record.

"I'm really looking forward to it, because in order to do it, I'm really going to have to sweat it out for two weeks. The audience is going to come to hear me expecting certain kinds of things that I've done -- or a certain attitude, certain takes, certain characters -- and I'll have to just close my eyes and go for it. It's going to be really difficult, but I can't wait! I'm champing at the bit."

Bobby McFerrin

When: Sunday, 3 p.m.

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Tickets: $30, $75 with VIP reception

$ Call: (410) 727-2611

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