2014 Ottawa Jazz Festival, Day 10: Bobby McFerrin
Confederation Park
Sunday, June 29, 2014

Vocalist Bobby McFerrin is undoubtedly sui generis: he's crossed the boundaries of jazz, pop, and most recently gospel, over and over again. But with his emphasis on improvisation, experimentation, and reinterpretation, I think most jazz fans would be happy to welcome him as one of us.

The almost-capacity crowd in Confederation Park was certainly delighted to see him: they started the evening off with a standing ovation, sang along in one song, and – most importantly – shut up when the band was playing. It was an evening of great communication, on and off-stage, and highly enjoyable music.

McFerrin began the evening scatting, popping out syllables and lightly bumping his chest to add extra percussive effect, as he did throughout the evening. He was assisted by accented playing by a tight backing band, including some soaring lines from Gil Bruce Goldstein's accordion and fierce playing by Armand Hirsch on electric guitar.

His second number brought the gospel theme of the evening to the fore. McFerrin's latest album is called spirityouall, and features traditional gospel numbers, a Bob Dylan song, and several originals by McFerrin, all with a hopeful religious theme.

He gave “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” a quick, swinging, easy rendition, occasionally interspersing scatting into the lyrics. Accompanied by his daughter, Madison, whose soprano combined easily with her father's tenor, he kept up a strong forward momentum on the song, sometimes playing with the words but still not losing the underlying meaning.

That was followed by a whole series of gospel numbers, some bluesy (at one point reminding me of Muddy Waters), some sweet with a touch of falsetto, some rollicking, and all warm and sincere. McFerrin made religion go down smoothly, with a dose of humour, a willingness to play around with familiar tunes, and strong instrumental backup.

For short interludes  throughout the concert, he lightened the mood by doing short vocal impersonations of famous rock or pop tunes – Neil Young in “Helpless”, Robert Plant in “Black Dog”, The Platters in “Only You”, Johnny Mathis in “Misty”, and even Aretha Franklin in “Respect”, accompanied by a fatherly burst of pride as he pointed out that Madison had sung with Franklin at her concert the night before.

At one point, he stopped mid-song, admitting he forgot the words – but then continued, noting that “you've got to try things, and sometimes they don't work. The stage for me is like a laboratory.” Since the song then continued with a an extended violin/electric guitar duet reminiscent of Bill Frisell, followed by a father-daughter duet in which they traded lines, building up to a high climax, I think the audience didn't mind the experimentation one bit.

During “He's Got the Whole World in his Hands”, McFerrin invited several audience members in the Platinum section to sing with him – to their great joy and with good musical results – before climbing back on stage, still scatting away.

And he sung some straight jazz as well – “Blue Monk”, which he gave a strong swinging feel with held notes, and then invited the audience to participate in a call-and-response section. “Fly Me to the Moon” was sung in a more gravelly voice than Frank Sinatra's, but his version was clear, seemingly-effortless, and soaring (he said afterwards it reminded him of long-ago nights he had to play piano bars). “Lullabye of Broadway” featured Madison starting alone: a bright, vibrant rendition but with a bit too much vibrato. Her father joined for a duet partway through; he added a scatting section, and they ended smoothly together.

The show ended with a series of gospel numbers, a fast accented one based on Psalm 25, verse 15, and what started out as a fiddle tune and featured some sizzling scatting before slowing to a simple plea for help from above and ending with a strong held note, and a command to “be good to yourself: you're the only one you've got”.

The audience, unsurprisingly, rose immediately for a standing ovation and demanded an encore: a simple gospel tune inviting them to lay their burdens down.

It was a stirring concert, well-put-together but with enough lightly roughened edges to make it natural and spontaneous, and give lots of room for the instrumentalists to show their skill as well: for example David Mansfield's fluid interludes on steel guitar and mandolin. Unlike Aretha Franklin the night before, McFerrin didn't need to remind the audience of his past hits – he's doing enough interesting work now that anyone could enjoy.

    – Alayne McGregor

Photos are not available for this review because the Ottawa Jazz Festival denied access to OttawaJazzScene.ca's photojournalist.