Bobby McFerrin more than a happy song he wrote

Bobby McFerrin GigCity EdmontonA remarkable thing happened when Bobby McFerrin did an audience participation bit at the Arden Theatre about 20 years ago – and it had nothing to do with “Don’t Worry, By Happy,” the smash hit song he released in 1988 that defined this unassuming jazz singer forever, for good or ill.

Singalongs aren’t remarkable, of course. A lot of performers do them. On a good night, most fans participate. But it’s never unanimous. Some people are too shy to sing. But not at this show. Every single person, young and old, was singing as loud as he or she possibly could. It was some a cappella improvisation, and McFerrin emanated such joy with such a disarming style that shyness was banished. He made himself appear so vulnerable that you would’ve felt stupid for NOT singing along. Frankly, it was a little weird.

He’s been keeping this spirit up ever since, in the vanguard of vocal jazz far beyond his happy hit. In advance of his show at the Edmonton International Jazz Festival, playing the Winspear Centre on Tuesday, June 24, McFerrin recently agreed to an email Q&A interview. First question: How did you do that?!

A: I’m clearly enjoying myself, so when I invite the audience to sing I guess they think they might have some fun.

Q: What do you think of ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams?

A: It’s a sweet, happy song. I like it.

Q: Are you happy? (Charles De Gaulle was asked this question once. His response, in French: ‘What do you take me for, an idiot?’ I still think it’s a good question.)

A: Sometimes I’m happy, sometimes I’m sad or cranky or tired, but I’m always joyful. It’s a joy to be alive in the world. It’s a joy to sing.

Q: Do you feel your ‘happy’ song is a burden to you, either from having to perform it every night (you do, don’t you?) or from the legacy that may obscure your other art from the public?

A: I haven’t performed “Don’t Worry Be Happy” since the ‘80s. I’m grateful the song means so much to so many people, and I’m grateful that it helped me reach some people who otherwise probably would not have come out to hear an improvising singer do solo concerts! But it’s a multi-tracked studio recording, seven tracks. I couldn’t do that version live. And by the time it became a hit I’d already sung it so many times I was ready to move on. There are other things I want to sing for people, and with them.

Q: One more question about ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’: I think it’s fascinating to explore the relationship of a massive hit song and its creator. The guy from Deep Purple said that ‘Smoke on the Water’ eerily felt like it began to take on a life of its own, like a Frankenstein. Do you feel at some point, certain popular songs – and yours in particular – become more famous than the songwriter to the point people don’t even know, or care, who the writers are anymore? Think of all the material written by Mr. Trad Anon.

A: Almost every time I do an interview I thank the Lord I’m a singer and not a musicologist. There’s a lot I don’t think about. I’m busy listening for the music in my head.

Q: Do you still do ‘Blackbird’? I wondered how you do that, too, with the large interval jumps and seeming not to take a breath. Can you practice so-called ‘circular breathing?’ Please explain.

A: I do still sing that song, not all the time, but it’s still alive for me, a sweet place to visit. I’ve tried to do a little circular breathing just out of curiosity, I’ve met some wind players who are amazing at it, but I don’t really use that technique. I sometimes sing a note on an “in” breath, and I take a lot of short catch breaths between notes.

Q. Will you have accompaniment at the show in Edmonton?

A: I’m touring with my spirityouall band, playing some songs from the album and also some new material. I love this band, we’ve been traveling together for two years now. We know each other so well we can turn on a dime, go anywhere.

Q: How much of your show will be pure improvisation?

A: I’ll probably do at least one solo piece that’s purely improvised, and of course we try to keep a spirit of freedom and looseness throughout, but with the band we have a repertoire of tunes to play.

Q: You seem to me to be one of the original ‘beat-box’ performers – in a jazz vein, naturally. Have you explored hip hop to any great extent? Have you collaborated with your son very much?

A: I don’t think of myself as a beat-boxer, I think of myself as a singer who uses some vocal and body percussion. I struggled with hip hop as Taylor was growing up, violent lyrics and harsh language are really difficult for me, we had some arguments about his listening! But he’s got his own path, and I respect that, he’s doing great. I love it when we get chances to work together, I’m a guest on his new album, and I’m incredibly proud of the way he’s forging ahead. All my kids are amazing, incredibly talented. Maddie’s just graduated from Berklee College of Music and is touring with the spirityouall band, so she’ll be in Edmonton with me. Jevon is performing on Broadway as part of the cast of Motown: The Musical. I’m a very proud papa.

Q: How exactly did you make the jump from being a jazz singer to conducting orchestras? Seems an interesting stretch.

A: I think of myself as a singer, not specifically as a jazz singer. I grew up in a house full of all kinds of music. One of my earliest memories is of conducting Beethoven (as played by our stereo) around age 3. As a 40th birthday present to myself I asked the San Francisco Symphony if I could conduct a piece, and then I studied hard to prepare, and that started a whole adventure in the conducting world. I don’t conduct often anymore, but it’s always fun, like singing with my hands.

Q: You’ve studied some of the deeper aspects of music as it affects the human brain; what did you discover that surprised you the most?

A: I think you’re referring to the Pentatonic Romp, which is a piece I do in concert that was featured on a video of the World Science Festival and has gotten some crazy number of plays on YouTube. It’s pretty amazing what’s hard-wired into the human brain, and how audiences all over the world react to music. I get a chance to experience that from the stage. And I’ve gotten to talk with some of the people who study this stuff, like Dan Levitan and Elena Mannes. I’m not a scientist or a scholar, I haven’t really studied it myself. I”ve experienced it, though!

Q: What is your vocal range at the present time and how has this changed over the years?

A: It changes day to day, always has. If I have more, I use it. If I have less, I use that. The thing that’s changed most over the years is that I’m more interested in softer, quieter sounds.

Q: Last question! If you could pick your proudest moment and/or greatest achievement, what would it be?

A: I’m most proud of my family and my kids.

The Edmonton International Jazz Festival runs June 20-29 at venues around town. DETAILS