Bobby McFerrin has done something that impresses me as both majestic and simple which is that he has begun to be iconographic. I'm likening his musical genius now to that of Thelonius Monk in that there are a few signature melodies which will be forever his legacy. Monk was a great deal more prolific than McFerrin of course and one could argue that Monk was more innovative, but when it comes to the actual genius of Monk's melodies it's difficult for me to say he had all that much over McFerrin.
When I first downloaded Vocabularies, his latest release, I immediately recognized three tunes; Baby, The Garden and He Ran To The Train. I was immediately disappointed because I wanted to hear something new. I always wonder where he's going to go next. And since Medicine Music, BangZoom and Beyond Words, I think I have found the golden age of Bobby. But now I hear in Vocabularies some of the very best of that orchestrated with instruments and a chorale group that fulfills much of the unknown promise in those extraordinary songs. McFerrin is an extraordinarily gifted vocalist, but now what he has done is realized to an extent never before possible with his single voice. These vocal arrangements are some of the most profoundly beautiful and dynamically striking I've ever heard. It's no longer just Bobby, it's something much more.
My favorite is now 'Train' and as I hear it I imagine myself transported to the day Bobby fell across some Southern African traditional singing in his travels - something he captured and distilled to his own signature and presented to us without a real spoken language but with sophisticated vocalizations like American jazz scatting taken to the next level. It could have been that or it could have been the simple melody Bobby invented scaled up and given all it needed to realize all that was embedded. Either way it establishes the songs I've been grooving to for the past 15 years over and over as McFerrin's own standards. There is nothing in my library which is not an acknowledged classical or jazz standard that is so listenable and fresh as these songs.
McFerrin has a popular video going around my circles from TED. In his own trademark and inimitable way he communicates human musical fundamentals to the audience with wit and humor. He is maturing into a realm of serious play in a way that speaks to the sort of living musical legend he is in his blood, spirit and character.
But what stands out here is how in his work he has sublimated himself to the art in a dramatic way. McFerrin is now establishing himself as one beyond mastery. He is a literal and figurative conductor of music that engages us.
There is something I am trying to understand about the positive and creative spirit in the essence of Pop. If there was an exuberance enjoined by Pop creativity in the 60s which led artists to believe in a new world of conveying the essentials of the human spirit in an open and engaging way, then McFerrin has some of that in his work. What's wrong with Pop is that it has become something other than that people's music - it belongs to stars. McFerrin has brought something back down from the firmament that requires talent and craft beyond that which fuels today's pop recording artists. You know it. You know where the music is going and where it is coming from. It is the power of the human voice and this is what it supposed to sound like.