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Multitalented McFerrin

As Bobby McFerrin returns to conduct the Florida Orchestra, the question may arise: Is he a pop singer, a conductor or a jazz artist? The answer: Yes.

By PHILIP BOOTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 20, 2003

[Publicity photo]
Singing is first and foremost for him, Bobby McFerrin says. He approaches conducting from the viewpoint of a singer.

Will the real Bobby McFerrin please stand up?

The California-bred musician, a former piano student, made his name in the 1980s as a musically daring vocal virtuoso. He gained a loyal following among jazz audiences and worked with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis and Wayne Shorter. And he topped the pop charts with the reggae-tinged Don't Worry, Be Happy from 1988's Simple Pleasures album.

Then, in 1990, on his 40th birthday, McFerrin debuted as a conductor, with the San Francisco Symphony. Two years later, he was named creative chair of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota and kept that position until 2001.

He swerved back to vocal jazz, or so it seemed, with last year's Beyond Words, a collaboration with pianist and Clearwater resident Chick Corea, bassist-guitarist Richard Bona, drummer Omar Hakim and percussionist Cyro Baptista. The disc was McFerrin's first release on the Blue Note label since 1995's Bang! Zoom.

But he's not cutting back on conducting gigs. He returns to the Tampa Bay area Sunday for his third stint with the Florida Orchestra since 1996 and his fifth overall. He'll conduct pieces by Prokofiev, Ravel and Beethoven, and turn in several a cappella selections, most likely to include his familiar, speedy, condensed telling of The Wizard of Oz.

Outside observers might accuse McFerrin of having an identity crisis: Is he a singer, a conductor, or a little of both?

"I'm a singer, first, foremost, always, bottom line," McFerrin, now a Philadelphia resident, said by telephone from a tour stop in New York City. "Conducting is like singing with my hands. But it's an easy choice. I'm a singer first of all, and everything I do comes from a singer's idea of things, a singer's way of viewing the music."

McFerrin said that his background gives him a unique perspective on the art of conducting, one not necessarily shared by conductors who lack training or experience as singers.

"One of the ways that I'm working on a score is not only by looking at it, but I like to listen to different interpretations and find the singable-ness in them," he said. "It's a very, very interesting way to see what the technical challenges are.

"It's like looking at the plans of a house you're building. My wife and I are actually building a house right now. We've got the architectural plans, where we can look at them. But it's another thing to walk around and see where the furniture is going to be. I like to look at the music by walking around the music, to see the spatial choices that (composers) make. I enjoy listening to a piece and singing it, looking at the parts and singing the parts. That helps me to understand a piece better."

McFerrin took an unconventional approach, too, when it came to putting together Beyond Words.

Call it an artsy scientific method: Each day for several months, he spent four hours in his home studio forcing himself to complete an idea -- a riff, a phrase, a chord progression -- every 30 minutes.

"I was making a lot of fast choices, finding a sound randomly and coming up with a piece based on that sound," he said. "At the end of that process, I had several hundred ideas. The next step was to listen to all of them and catalog them."

Despite his considerable accomplishments as a conductor and as a master of unaccompanied singing and inventive vocal effects, McFerrin is probably best known for Don't Worry, Be Happy. The ditty, fun if mindless, once was practically unavoidable on the airwaves.

The song's success has amounted to a calling card that's a blessing and a burden.

"It's a little bit of all of that," he said. "But I've pretty much sort of accepted it. Yesterday, I was visiting this church (in New York). There was so much singing and getting down, and the preacher got up there to preach, and he said, 'Now I know this guy doesn't want to be recognized (as the man behind the hit). But it's scriptural, Bobby. It's scriptural.' They had me stand up. That comes up all the time."

* * *

PREVIEW: Bobby McFerrin will conduct the Florida Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. Tickets: $28-$60. (813) 286-2403 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286.

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