By Don Heckman
There’s one thing that can almost always be anticipated about a Bobby McFerrin appearance: that there’s no telling what to expect. His performance at Disney Hall Wednesday night, for example, seemed to be specifically on track, with the whimsical title, “Spirityouall,” announcing a program honoring his father, Robert McFerrin, Sr., an operatic baritone and interpreter of spirituals.
And the evening did indeed overflow with spirituals, from classics such as “Wade in the Water” to McFerrin originals. But the songs – as always in a McFerrin performance – were just the starting points for startlingly creative musical expeditions.
At the center of each song was the astonishing McFerrin voice. Blessed with an extraordinary instrument, reaching over several octaves, capable of leaping giant intervals in a single bound, there were no limits to his expressive potential. Whether simply arching warmly through a familiar melody, adding his own inventive variations or showcasing his remarkable vocal gymnastics, he was utterly fascinating. And he enhanced his appeal with a wry sense of humor and compelling interaction with his musicians.
Which raises another vital aspect of this mesmerizing evening – the presence of a quintet of musical artists completely in sync with McFerrin’s every subtle improvisational twist and turn. At the keyboards (and accordion) Gil Goldstein also served as musical director and arranger; David Mansfield doubled on guitar, mandolin and violin; Armand Hirsch also played guitar and mandolin; Jeff Carney payed contrabass; and Louis Cato doubled impressively on drum set, percussion and back up vocals.
There were far too many high points to mention them all. Among the most memorable:
- A version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” ranging from pensive to gently swinging.
- “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho”: enhanced by McFerrin’s high flying scatting; it’s hard to name any current jazz singer who can vocally improvise with his rhythmic elan and melodic inventiveness.
- The emotionally touching originals, “Woe” and “Jesus Makes It Good” (performed by McFerrin at the piano).
- A stunning, bebop-driven trio medley with bassist Carney and drummer Cato.
- And another medley, this time with a distinctly bluegrass slant, featuring violinist Mansfield and keyboardist Goldstein.
- Add to all that McFerrin’s frequent singalong interactions with his receptive audience, as well as a living room moment in which he asked any listeners who so desired to join him at the stage to share a song. And a few did, enthusiastically doing their best with “Amen.”
McFerrin wrapped the program with an encore version of “Wade in the Water,” a final reminder of his extraordinary creative gifts, and a delightfully conclusive ending to a memorable musical adventure.