A few years ago I had the opportunity to see Bobby McFerrin perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center and it was one of the most inspiring performances of my life. The way he interacts with the audience and creates such a safe, open, free environment to perform is unlike any other performer I have ever seen.
Bobby McFerrin starts all his shows with 2 solo improvisations. Similar to Keith Jarrett’s solo piano improvisations. He sits down on stage and just starts singing. The magic is that even he doesn’t know where the piece will end up, but all that matters is that he doesn’t stop.
The next few pieces were done with a chorus of about 40 men and women. They were beautifully arranged pieces, with African themes and latin percussion. The way the voices intertwine and move amongst each other was brilliant.
What is amazing about the style of performance that McFerrin brings to the stage is how he incorporates the audience into the playing. He would literally pick someone out of the crowd to come up and improvise a vocal improvisation.
At one point he would walk up to a woman and try to get her to sing with him. Some people would choke up and wouldnt be able to open themselves up, but others are just dying to sing with him.
It was a really amazing lesson as a performer on how to get a crowd to open themselves up and let you mold their hearts. This was ultra-influential on me and I hope to use some of the thing I saw the next time I perform.
If you ever get the chance to see Bobby McFerrin Live, I would jump on the opportunity. It is an experience of a lifetime.
Afterwards there was a Q & A discussion with him. Here are a few of the questions that were asked:
What kind of music do you like?
“I like most things. I like anything that swings and has a nice beat to it. The kind of music I don’t like is the kind that is violent in nature or misogynistic or oversexed. There’s so many songs out there that are very degrading to women. I don’t like songs that are negative and have no redemptive value.”
What do you like about improvising?
“The thing that I like about improvising, just generally is the fact that you are doing something only one time. And there is something extraordinarily beautiful to me about that.
The first two pieces that I do at every concert are improvised. That’s sort of a rule of thumb for me. Its funny it used to only be the first piece, but then I discovered that after improvising the first piece the most difficult decision was to figure out what I would be doing for the second piece. So I decided to make the second piece another improv. And then after that it’s up for grabs, whatever comes to mind at the time. The halls are different, the audiences are different, and I just kind of go with whatever I’m feeling at the time.”
What is your favorite album of all time?
“…For classic rock music an album Eric Clapton, Ric Grech, Ginger Baker, and Steve Winwood did called, Blind Faith…
…Keith Jarretts first solo album called, Facing You. And Miles Davis Live Evil….”
When you improvise, do you ever get jammed up?
“At the very beginning of the show, when I do my solo improves, I ignore the audience. And I actually like a dark house where I cant see anyone. I like to get to the hall at the last second so I don’t have the hall in me. I like to have the street in me. So I get to the hall maybe ten minutes to 8 o clock. That’s the way I like it. I never get jammed in an improv because fundamentally improv is simply motion. The most courageous thing you need to do is keep singing keep playing. So you never stop. You would stop if you were thinking about what you’re doing. But if you don’t think about that and you just keep your attention on the motion the notes just continue to flow.”