Celebrated voice artist Bobby McFerrin brought his small ensemble, GIMME5, to McCain Auditorium on Monday evening (a makeup for his canceled show of April 2017) to present a 90-minute, no-interval program of a cappella explorations called “Circlesongs.”
If you didn’t know what to expect beforehand, you didn’t get much help from the printed program, which offered nothing but a single partial-page puff that both oversimplified and understated the achievements of McFerrin’s storied career. This is, after all, the hugely gifted composer/conductor/performer whose unique, groundbreaking and genre-spanning contributions have enriched and enlivened our musical scene, in both solo riffs (e.g., “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and crossover collaborations with multiple fellow artists (e.g., cellist Yo-Yo Ma)) and prestigious classical ensembles (e.g., the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra), for over 40 years.
That said, printed notes couldn’t have provided much in the way of the usual listing of works to be performed inasmuch as GIMME5 doesn’t follow any sort of fixed program. They walk on casually, unpretentious in both bearing and garb, settle into their seats, and without further fuss lift up their handheld mics and begin weaving an improvisatory sonic meander that in time somehow winds its intuitive way to a finish line.
Of course, the voice in the mix that rings out most clearly is McFerrin’s own, still shiny as NBC’s chimes and as full of multi-octave bounce as ever. But if he’s first among equals, he’s also the generous leader of a chamber group who insists that jazz-combo justice be afforded each of its individual players who, in turn, get to show us just what their own special merits are.
And the sharing didn’t stop with his on-stage circle. Every member of GIMME5 requested, indeed demanded, that their audience pitch in with some vocal support as well. Nothing simple, either, like following along with the national anthem. Given that the music itself was improvised, it had to be a “sing after me” exercise in on-the-spot rote learning. It was remarkable how well the massed voices succeeded in echoing what came from the stage. It must be true that America’s got talent!
Probably the most telling collaborative highlight of the night came when McFerrin carried a second mic to the lip of the stage, plunked himself down with legs adangle over the edge and asked if somebody would care to duo with him. An audio selfie with the legendary Bobby McFerrin? I mean, that had to be by prearrangement, right? Wizard though he may be he couldn’t really throw himself on the mercy of a crowd, could he?
Regardless, the young lady volunteer, Chelsea, who scampered up to sit with him couldn’t have done better if she had in fact rehearsed her once-in-a-life shot at a memory book moment. Asked what she wanted to sing, she gave the perfect McFerrin answer: Let’s just go with it and see where it takes us. It was the gig that brought down the house.
To conclude, an hour and a half with McFerrin and Friends wasn’t a concert so much as an immersion experience. With our very capable headman in charge we were all just sitting around the campfire, feeling the warm, letting it all soak in.