NPR logo

Bobby McFerrin's Improv-Inspired 'Vocabularies'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Bobby McFerrin's Improv-Inspired 'Vocabularies'

Bobby McFerrin's Improv-Inspired 'Vocabularies'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Bobby McFerrin's name has been part of world music's lexicon for more than two decades. You remember back then he sang that song, the infectious hummable worldwide mega-hit, "Don't Worry Be Happy." Take a moment to hum it to yourself while we tell you that the happy accident of "Don't Worry Be Happy" ended Bobby McFerrin's musical life as he had known it, at least for a while.

He was famous and he could not hide from that song. But he followed his heart and he dug deeper and he sought broader possibilities for music, whether on stage or in a recording studio. On any given night, Bobby McFerrin can be found delicately walking a tightrope of vocal improvisation, carrying nothing more than his four-octave vocal range and his childlike sense of play.

Next month, he'll sing and conduct an orchestra at La Scala in Italy, something he spent considerable time doing as creative chair of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Bobby McFerrin's projects have varied from singing daring duets with pianist Chick Correa to breathing new life into classical treasures with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, to finding inspiration through his well-honed singing ensemble Voicestra. He's also been using audience members as spontaneous singing partners for the pure joy of making music.

And that man you heard making music behind me is indeed Bobby McFerrin. His first album in eight years is called "Vocabularies." It's just out and he's in the studio. Welcome. Thank you for that little musical interlude.

Mr. BOBBY MCFERRIN (Musician): You're welcome.

HANSEN: You feel like doing any more singing before we...

(Soundbite of singing)

HANSEN: Nice. Made up on the spot?

Mr. MCFERRIN: Yes. I went to MSU - making stuff up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Sometimes that's a great way to be creative.


HANSEN: Tell us a little bit about the concept behind this new CD.

Mr. MCFERRIN: The concept was born out of many requests that I had from different choirs and choir directors and choral organizations to make available to them arrangements of my pieces. And so, Roger Treece, who is the arranger on this project - we met maybe eight, nine, 10 years ago - and started getting together. And, you know, I would improvise on things and he would notate them.

Eight years later, I guess, "Vocabularies" was born. I was quite a process. You know, he took some of the pieces that were improvised during one of Voicestra's tours. Everything on those tours are recorded. And thank you for pronouncing it correctly. It's Voicestra, exactly.

HANSEN: Voicestra.

Mr. MCFERRIN: Right. And so, all of those concerts are completely improvised, first note to last.

HANSEN: Amazing.

Mr. MCFERRIN: And so he would take some of the pieces and develop them, you know, find themes. So, I would go into the studio and he would say things like I need a new melody from bars 12 to 36, and he'd put bars 12 to 36 on a loop and I would just simply sing over and over and over again.

HANSEN: Oh my goodness. And it's something like you had 1,400 recorded tracks for this?

Mr. MCFERRIN: It wouldn't surprise me.



HANSEN: Yeah. We actually were in touch with Roger Treece...


HANSEN: ...the arranger who sings in the group and he helped produce the recording. He sent us some archival sound, which inspired some of these multi-layered works. We're going to hear a little bit of the original inspiration for the song "Messages."

(Soundbite of song, "Messages")

HANSEN: Do you have anything to say about this original track?

Mr. MCFERRIN: Well, you know, if we hadn't recorded them written them down, they wouldve soon have been forgotten because, like I say, these are all improvised moments on stage. And so this is what Roger developed.

HANSEN: Right. So, let's now hear an excerpt from the finished track.

(Soundbite of song, "Messages")

HANSEN: That's "Messages" from Bobby McFerrin's new album, "Vocabularies." When you work on something like this for so long, first of all, do you remember how the final track got put together, because it has so much depth and breadth from the original?

Mr. MCFERRIN: I can't say how it was - the kind of decision-making process that Roger went through, because, you know, I'm sure that the part that he would have me do, I'm sure I did hundreds of times. There were hundreds of improvisational passages that I did that he must have taken many, many hours of listening and making decisions - well, I like the first 12 notes of this phrase or something, you know, however, you know, he put all this stuff together. But I basically was just sort of the well that he drew from.

HANSEN: I have to ask: how do you know when you were finished?

Mr. MCFERRIN: Well, I thought we were finished many times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCFERRIN: And Roger would say, no, it's not quite there. We're almost there.

HANSEN: This isn't a pop recording in the sense that you don't tour in support of the product.

Mr. MCFERRIN: Right, yeah.

HANSEN: At least not in the old sense. And given that yours is such an improvisatory art, why do you make recordings?

Mr. MCFERRIN: I ask myself that sometimes. Recording is not one of my favorite ventures. I prefer the immediacy, the intimacy of an audience. Studios tend to be very dry for me and in a way inhospitable to my art, you know. I like things that happen one time. That's one of the beauties of improv. You do something that, more than likely, will never be heard again. Excuse me.

But I guess I record to simply document, you know, my journey. This is where I am right now. And so when the album was released people will get a sense of my current location.

HANSEN: I see.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: The CD is GPS for Bobby McFerrin.

Mr. MCFERRIN: Right, right, yeah.

HANSEN: Yeah, yeah. Can these tunes be performed live, given everything it took to get to make it?

Mr. MCFERRIN: Yes, yes, yes.


Mr. MCFERRIN: We're hoping after the album gains momentum that more choirs will be interested in performing it.

HANSEN: I'm speaking with vocal artist Bobby McFerrin.

Your father - and this is not something I knew about you - the late Robert McFerrin was the first African-American male soloist with the Metropolitan Opera. He was a baritone. And the New York City Opera and the Schaumberg Center all held tributes to him this year. We hear his voice singing as Porgy when we watch the movie version with Sidney Poitier...

Mr. MCFERRIN: Right.

HANSEN: Porgy in "Porgy and Bess." And your father only made a couple of recordings. Most of them are out of print. Do you remember what your father's favorite role was at the Met?

Mr. MCFERRIN: No. The only time I saw him at the Met was when he played Rigoletto. I think I was six, six years old.

HANSEN: He did a recording of spirituals?

Mr. MCFERRIN: Called "Deep River" on the Riverside label, which is very difficult to find. It's out of print but it's an absolutely wonderful, wonderful album. Did a few of them but I think he enjoyed doing the spirituals probably more than anything.

HANSEN: Than the opera?


(Soundbite of song, "Got to Lie Down")

Mr. ROBERT MCFERRIN (Late Singer): (Singing) I got to lie down. How shall I rise? Got to lie down. How shall I rise? I got to lie down. How shall I rise, there before the judgment bar(ph)? I got to lie down. How shall I rise? Got to lie down. How shall I rise? I got to lie down. How shall I rise, there before the judgment bar?

HANSEN: Did his stature, though, as a pioneer intimidate or inspire you?

Mr. MCFERRIN: Well, you know, that's a question that I think I've answered. It could be one of the reasons that I - it took me so long to recognize that I was a singer. You know, my parents were singers and my sister was a singer.

HANSEN: Right.

Mr. MCFERRIN: And, you know, and I'm a piano player, at least I think I am. And I spent a lot of years as a pianist. But, you know, I always - as long as I played piano, I always had this nagging suspicion that I wasnt a pianist. And it mightve taken me a long time to discover that I was a singer because everyone else in my family sang and I wanted to be different.

HANSEN: I was interested that you recently told an audience just outside of Washington, D.C. that you didn't discover that you were a singer until you were 27 years old. I mean, what was youre a-ha moment?

Mr. MCFERRIN: My a-ha moment was on July the 11th, 1977...

HANSEN: Not that you remember.

Mr. MCFERRIN: I do remember it very well. It was a beautiful day like today. It was somewhere between 12 and 12:30 and I was walking home from a class at the University of Utah. I was an accompanist in the dance department and before I got home I recognized I was a singer. And I don't remember it being a, you know, kind of a, you know, thunder and lightning kind of a moment. It was just a subtle inner knowing that I was not a pianist as I thought but I was actually a singer.

And what's really remarkable is when I got home, the first thing I did was open the Yellow Pages and look for a hotel, there was a Hilton hotel. Might have had an ad or something on that page. And I called them and the manager of the piano bar, who is never, ever there was there and picked up the phone. And I told him who I was and I asked if I could audition in his piano bar. And he said, well, why don't you come down tomorrow? So, I went to the piano bar and I sang five tunes 'cause I only knew five.

HANSEN: Which ones were they?

Mr. MCFERRIN: Well, "You are the Sunshine of My Life" was one of them, a tune by a group called Blind Faith...


Mr. MCFERRIN: ...with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, Ric Grech and Stevie Winwood. It was...

(Singing) Come down off your throne and leave you body alone. Somebody must change.

I sang that. And a tune by Joan Armatrading called "Opportunity."

(Singing) Opportunity, came through my door.

You know, so, I sang that and two other pieces I don't remember but he hired me. And he said, could you start in a month, which I did. That was August the 8th. I learned a tune a day, so I had about 35 tunes at the end of that month and I was able to do three sets. I played what was called the Attitude Adjustment Hour between four and seven in a bar at the Hilton Hotel, a Room at the Top, Salt Lake City, Utah.

You know, my whole goal this whole time was just to be a working musician. You know, it wasn't about being famous or being a celebrity. You know, success for me was just work, you know.

HANSEN: Um-hum. But it's play, too. I mean, you have to approach your work like play, otherwise it wouldn't turn out the way that it did.

Mr. MCFERRIN: Well, I always tell, you know, students that I'm working with that as musicians we play for a living.


Mr. MCFERRIN: You know, when we're doing our lessons and the teacher doesn't say, okay, one, two, ready, set, work. They say, ready, set, play, and I always took that word seriously.

HANSEN: Yeah. Bobby McFerrin - his latest album is called "Vocabularies." Thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. MCFERRIN: Oh, you're welcome. My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Special thanks to NPR engineer Drew Branniff(ph) and the music library and sound recordings archives at Bowling Green State University for Robert McFerrin's 1957 album, "Deep River."

You can hear a song from Bobby McFerrin's new album and a vocal improve at

(Soundbite of song)

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.