An amusing warning prefaces the press bio for Bobby McFerrin. It cautions that prolonged listening to the multi-Grammy-winning vocal artist “may be hazardous to your preconceptions” and that possible side effects for those embracing his music include “utter and unparalleled joy, a new perspective on creativity, permanent rejection of the predictable, and a sudden, irreversible urge to lead a more spontaneous existence.”
For any other artist, that might seem like a series of fanciful boasts. But for more than three decades, McFerrin has made a mighty joyful noise while resetting the boundaries and roles of what a contemporary vocalist can do.
He might be performing as a one-man vocal ensemble, improvising alongside jazz giants Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, vocalizing in duets with piano great Chick Corea, conducting such celebrated orchestras as the New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony, fronting the choir group VOCAbuLarieS or taking to the airwaves with the cheeriest of pop hits, 1988’s Don’t Worry Be Happy.
So it is perhaps in keeping with McFerrin’s sense of artistic wanderlust that his Thursday performance at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville deals with none of those. Instead, it will be devoted to the music of his 2013 Spirityouall album, a far-reaching collection of jazz-, rock- and blues-inspired spirituals.
“The idea of making an album of spirituals has been kicking around for decades,” McFerrin explained during a recent email interview. “It just took a long time for the pieces to fall into place. I’ve always wanted to do some kind of tribute to my dad and I’ve always wanted to make an album of songs people could sing along with, songs they could teach their kids. It wasn’t until recently that suddenly it made sense that all these separate ideas could come together.”
The singer’s father, Robert McFerrin Sr., was a towering inspiration. A heralded baritone and protégé of the renowned Hall Johnson, the elder McFerrin was the first black singer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His 1957 album Deep River — in particular, the traditional spiritual Fix Me Jesus — was one of the creative wellsprings his son went to in mining material for Spirityouall.
“Both of my parents were such strong influences on me, musically and personally,” he said. “This album really does reflect my father’s influence enormously. I was a kid when he was working with the great Hall Johnson on the spirituals, preparing to record Deep River. Hall Johnson’s grandmother was a slave, and he had very specific ideas about tempo and delivery and how to pronounce certain words, and about the history and emotional impact of the songs. Listening to them work was a big formative experience. And my father’s versions of the spirituals are just incredible.
“I could never sing them the way he does. I had to find my own way, but his interpretations are a huge influence. Also, maybe even more important, my family always went to church and talked a lot about God. But the only time I really saw and felt my father praying was when he sang the spirituals. Now I try to pray whenever I sing, but especially when I sing these songs.”
The spirit of Spirityouall also will carry over into Thursday’s performance in that it will mark one of the few instances McFerrin has played in Kentucky with a full band. While he regularly collaborates with ensembles, including the long-running jazz quartet Yellowjackets, McFerrin has seldom undertaken an extended tour with a band of his own.
“It’s really important to me to keep the music alive and growing and changing,” he said. “I love working with each and every member of this band. We’ve charted out some beautiful new territory together. Some of my favorite tunes on the album have new life with the touring band – different grooves, different sounds.”