Vocalist Bobby McFerrin, known for his uncanny ability to emulate bumble bees and bassoons, was originally hooked on the piano.
It wasn’t until he hit his late 20s that he discovered the instrument within and found himself singing jazz, blues and Mozart. The 10-time Grammy Award-winning McFerrin will showcase his musical roots tonight and Saturday in his Jazz at Lincoln Center debut, when he takes the stage at the Rose Theater.
“I never felt that I was just a jazz singer,” McFerrin, 60, said in a phone interview. “My parents, who were singers, exposed me to classical music, rock, jazz, basically everything. This is the kind of home I grew up in.”
The switch from keyboard to voice unleashed a singing voyeur who gets a kick out of abandoning convention. At Lincoln Center, he’ll perform solo hits and music from his genre- blending April release, “VOCAbuLarieS,” his first recording in 8 years, a collection of choral songs with strokes of world and a cappella music.
A 43-member choir will share the spotlight with him, which includes 30 members of the Denmark-based a cappella group Vocal Line; rhythm and blues singer Lisa Fischer; and Joey Blake, Dave Worm and LaTanya Hall, plucked from McFerrin’s Voicestra ensemble.
Roger Treece, a Voicestra member and co-producer of VOCAbuLarieS, will lead the chorus.
McFerrin said he’ll nudge those in the audience to join in with him and the choir on some of the tunes from his latest CD.
“The best part is when I’m surprised by the incredible talent out there, when people get up there with their hearts open and vulnerable,” he said. “That’s a beautiful thing.”
McFerrin’s first music mentors were his parents. His father, baritone Robert, Sr., was the first black American man under contract to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. His mother and voice teacher, Sara, sang in Broadway shows and regional opera houses.
“I didn’t want to be a classical singer,” McFerrin said. “To learn singing, I spent six years working on technique, and then I spent time deliberately not listening to singers.”
After releasing his self-titled debut in 1982 and “The Voice,” two years later, he produced “Simple Pleasures” and the smash hit CD, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” which won the 1988 Grammies for Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
“The Voice,” which features him singing solo, without any instruments, established his signature approach to vocals. In the 1990s, McFerrin finally returned to classical music and jazz, collaborating with pianist Chick Corea on “Play” (1992) and “The Mozart Sessions” (1996) and with cellist Yo-Yo Ma on the multi-platinum-selling recording, “Hush” (1992).
An orchestral conductor, McFerrin held the creative chair of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota beginning in 1994. In that post, he performed works by Mozart, Bach and Tchaikovsky and experimented with modern approaches to choral tradition.
“There’s no difference in doing jazz or classical, not for me,” McFerrin said. “My attitude was always the same. Let’s have fun, and let’s have discovery in this music.”
With classical, jazz and pop music covered in his repertoire, McFerrin wants to make a rock recording in the future.
“Project wise, I make it up as I go along, but I have a dream of one day working with Eric Clapton,” said McFerrin, who lists the guitarist’s 1970s single with Derek and the Dominos, “Bell Bottom Blues” as his favorite Clapton tune. “Hard-rock blues is a genre I’ve participated in, and I think Eric would be the cat to work with.”
McFerrin and guests perform tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, 60th and Broadway in Manhattan. Information and tickets: http://www.jalc.org or +1- 212-721-6500.
(Patrick Cole is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.