Bobby McFerrin, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette
In a Q&A after Friday night’s performance at Clowes Hall by vocalist Bobby McFerrin, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Chick Corea, DeJohnette described the trio’s approach as “spontaneous composition in real time.” It’s an apt way to put it, because their work was something more than improvisation over a series of stock changes.
All three musicians brought their training and experience in all kinds of genres — jazz, obviously, but also classical and rock — as well as all the tools they could deploy, in order to put together an hour and a half of live music that wasn’t really classifiable. Corea not only worked in his familiar style — lush, bright playing that owes a little bit to the French impressionists and a lot to Latin music — but also reached inside his piano to play the strings directly with a vibraphone mallet, and also to mute the keys to produce a more obviously percussive sound that matched McFerrin’s chest-thumping vocals quite well (both sounded an airy thud). McFerrin went all over the place, not only working with bell-like runs and the upper reaches of his falsetto, but also occasionally singing some actual words and choruses, as well as nonsense languages. DeJohnette had a good-size set with him — on which he banged both wood drumsticks and mallets — and also brought along a percussion sampling device that could explore a range of folk instruments too numerous to lug on stage, as well as “resonating bells” of his own design, some sort of synthesizer and a Hohner melodica (a free-reed instrument that I always think of in concert with the Keytar, and which is played by blowing air through a plastic mouthpiece).
Instruments duly named, the concert can be roughly separated into three parts: the searching, free-wheeling opening that sounded most like McFerrin’s self-composed solo work; the humorous and interactive middle-section that cycled through fairly disparate musical periods; and the denouement, which returned to more McFerrin-centric group improvisations.
After the show, McFerrin said that he took his first musical cue from the squeaking sound that Corea’s piano stool made when he scooted in to play. McFerrin wasn’t lying when he said before the show (in an interview with NUVO) that he works with the first idea that comes into his head, and it seems that he hears sounds in the world around him with as much openness and lack of discrimination as John Cage celebrating the sound of a tea kettle or street traffic. From there, Corea imitated McFerrin — this time on the actual keyboard — and this trading of statements took off, with solos on all three instruments, Corea laying down an especially pretty, rich run using the whole piano at one point, and DeJohnette taking a drum solo (accompanied before and after by Corea on cow bell) that stuck mostly to a four-to-the-floor funk beat.
It’s toughest to describe these formless, wordless sections of the concert, not because they’re ineffable, but because they don’t readily fit into any genre categories — it’s the sound of flexible and creative masters at their respective instruments improvising, occasionally throwing in ideas from a genre here and there, but mostly following their own, fairly unrestrained, musical ideas. There wasn’t a whole lot of dissonance within Corea’s lines (although it popped up), the beat was fairly steady (although it dropped out) and McFerrin did a lot of falsetto and beatbox (although he also sang mock opera and something approaching gospel).
So it’s easier to describe the “middle” section, where the language wasn’t just musical, and the crowd was compelled to participate. Things took a turn when McFerrin moved from a McFerrin drum solo to a series of whoops and yelps (reactions of pain?), which he invited the audience to join in on — pointing to cue a whoop or a yelp from the crowd. Then the backward German experimental opera kicked in, with McFerrin singing what sounded like German vocals played backward, and Corea banging out atonal accompaniment. Corea and McFerrin eventually joined forces, carrying on a spirited conversation in backwards German, only to be interrupted by DeJohnette, who ventured a lyric in operatic English: “It has come to my attention that tension of piano is strung with thousands of pounds of pressure — you don’t want to put your face near for fear it could come loose.” McFerrin then took over the lyric in the style of Lady Day, moved to scat, and conducted the audience in a variety of vocals. It was all impressive and funny, and refreshing to see that these very serious performers could also do comedy improv — all three moved in the direction of mock experimental German operetta with surprising and satisfying rapidity.
The concert closed out more conventionally after all those hijinks, with piano and vocals that seemed somewhere between Glass and Debussy — a light and brilliant music played with an insistent rapidity. It all died out with a whimper, somewhat in the style as it began, with an unadorned musical idea thrown out by McFerrin and answered by Corea and DeJohnette.
The trio gave the crowd a chance to process following the concert, and assured a doubting first questioner that the show was entirely improvised. McFerrin also jokingly apologized that they didn’t get to any Garth Brooks numbers for the country and western fans in the house. A fine question came from the Clowes balcony, a risky place for any speaker to point — “Don’t you think your percussion set looks like an automobile?” DeJohnette’s reply was skilful: “It is an automobile, and the other night, I became an extraterrestrial being and levitated.” After a few questions about “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” — McFerrin, “All my songs are like children: I love them all, but some of them need to leave the house.” — the trio honored a request to play the McFerrin/Corea classic “Spain,” with Corea behind the piano and McFerrin and DeJohnette trading lead and backup vocals.
Something for everyone really — I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t most engaged during the mock German opera and group participation (as McFerrin puts it, everyone dreams about conducting the orchestra and singing in a concert hall), but the passages dedicated to “pure” music were challenging, inventive and a unique opportunity to catch some very talented musicians without any conventional constraints of form or genre. Not to mention that seeing Bobby McFerrin for the first time was a bit of a revelation — there weren’t any “Flight of the Bumblebee”-style fireworks, but his range, vocal style and ability to accompany himself (on bass when in falsetto, for instance) is astounding, and his Billie Holiday imitation was spot on.