"I was physically passed to the back of Carnegie Hall once, like a rock star. I wasn't dropped- I made it all the way to the back. Another time, at an outdoor venue, I got carried through the seats and up to the lawn. When I ran back to the stage somebody yelled out, 'I've got your wallet!'"
Hardly fazed by body-surfing expeditions and other surprises, Bobby McFerrin revels in the unexpected. Other performers find a niche and stay in it, but McFerrin has challenged himself throughout his remarkable three-decade career by constantly changing his musical direction. For McFerrin, music is a vast and beautiful world meant to be viewed from many different angles; when he was offered the opportunity to lead a seven-part Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall, there was never any question in his mind that each concert would adhere to a different theme, or that the element of surprise would be integral- even to him.
"I'm kind of a chameleon," McFerrin recently said. "I like to put myself in situations that twist my brain up in interesting ways. These concerts are basically about musical explorations."
For many, McFerrin's name is synonymous with "Don't Worry Be Happy," the 1988 number-one hit from the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. While that song raced up the charts, McFerrin made his first solo appearance at Carnegie Hall, improvising for two hours straight that night, and received seven standing ovations.
That breakout concert demonstrated that his feel-good summertime hit was only a small part of a much larger picture- and for the artist it quickly became very old news. The single was still receiving heavy airplay on radio when McFerrin made a conscious decision to stop performing it. Instead of capitalizing on his commercial success, he walked away from it. McFerrin stopped touring for a year and a half, didn't record for two, and did an about-face, entering the world of classical music as a conductor.
"The conducting came up because I was very curious about the art of it," McFerrin said. "What is it like to stand in front of a group of musicians and have this kind of musical experience? What is it like to stand in front of an audience with your back to them? But I want to clarify that I am not a conductor- it took me a long, long time to realize that. That is not who I am. I am a singer who conducts."
Conducting was not entirely alien territory to McFerrin, but he nonetheless approached it with the same open-mindedness, curiosity, and daring he had brought to singing. Just as this artist had virtually invented a new style of solo vocalizing that utilized not only the entirety of his four-octave range but several body parts as percussion, McFerrin applied an abundance of verve, originality, and physicality to his conducting. Before long, he had been invited to conduct many of the world's great orchestras, among them the Vienna Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, and The Philadelphia Orchestra.
For his Perspectives concerts, which begin when the singer performs with Alison Krauss and Edgar Meyer on February 21 and continues two days later with a Carnegie Hall Family Concert, McFerrin will wear several of his many hats. He expects he'll enjoy the experience as much as the audiences will. But he has his own reasons for coming to Carnegie Hall: "It's like a spiritual journey down into the depths of my soul: What's down there? And I'm also trying to get people to ask that question of themselves: 'What's down there?' That's why I do what I do."
Veteran music journalist Jeff Tamarkin is Associate Editor of JazzTimes.