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Bobby McFerrin explores spirituals, salutes father at Smith Center

Like father, like son. In a manner of speaking — or, more precisely, singing.

That’s the tie that binds Bobby McFerrin, who brings his “SpiritYouAll” to The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall Sunday night.

The project — in which McFerrin explores spirituals, both traditional and original — salutes his father and namesake, Metropolitan Opera baritone Robert McFerrin Sr., who died Nov. 24, 2006, at the age of 85.

The first African-American to sign a contract with the Metropolitan, McFerrin Sr. provided the singing voice for Sidney Poitier in the 1959 movie version of “Porgy and Bess.”

He also recorded a 1957 album titled “Deep River” — which featured, among other songs, three traditional spirituals also featured on his son’s new “SpiritYouAll” recording. (It debuts May 14, the day after McFerrin concludes his two-month concert tour at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.)

“The idea of doing a project based on the spirituals has been around for a long time, maybe decades,” McFerrin says in an email interview.

“But I just wasn’t ready,” he says, adding that “I needed to figure out what I had to bring to these songs that was my own. I certainly couldn’t sing them the way my father sang; he already did that better than I ever could.”

Beyond the father-son connection, recording “SpiritYouAll” enabled McFerrin to “make a record that acknowledges how deep my folk, rock and blues influences have shaped everything I do. They’ve always been there, but the jazz and world music and classical strains have gotten more air time.”

To say nothing of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

McFerrin’s 1988 smash became the first a capella song to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — and captured Grammy Awards for song of the year, record of the year and best male pop vocal performance.

McFerrin first encountered the phrase that inspired his hit when he saw a poster of the guru Meher Baba featuring the slogan.

“I started playing around, pretending to be the guru, telling everyone to transcend their problems,” McFerrin says. “It was funny because the words are completely ridiculous and completely true at the same time.”

Just don’t expect to hear McFerrin perform “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” during Sunday’s Smith Center concert.

After all, “it was recorded with seven layered tracks, so it’s really a studio song, not a live performance song,” he says.

“For a while, it was annoying that everyone was so focused on that one song,” McFerrin says. “But now I’m just grateful for the opportunities it gave me. Without that song, I wouldn’t have had the chance to pursue some of my great dreams: doing solo vocal concerts, starting (the vocal ensemble) Voicestra .”

Add “SpiritYouAll” to that list of dreams fulfilled.

“For a long time I fantasized about trying to put together a folk-rock band with Eric Clapton and James Taylor and Alison Krauss,” McFerrin writes. “Then, suddenly especially in the quiet morning time when I sing and pray, singing just for myself, it became clear” that the folk, rock and blues influences and the spirituals “belonged together.”

The result: new takes on such traditional favorites as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” plus one Bob Dylan cover (“I Shall Be Released”) and several originals, from a celebratory hoedown (“Rest”) to a down-and-dirty blues version of Psalm 25:15, which begins, “My eyes are ever toward the Lord … ”)

McFerrin’s “not promising to stick strictly to the set list, though,” he cautions. “There will be some surprises on each show!”

Joining him onstage: Gil Goldstein (who arranged the “SpiritYouAll” songs) on keyboards and accordion; drummer (and singer) Louis Cato; bassist Jeff Carney; guitarist Armand Hirsch; and David Mansfield, who plays guitar, pedal steel, violin and mandolin.

“It’s a great band,” McFerrin says. “So different from doing solo concerts, it’s like being enveloped in sound.”

And that’s exactly where McFerrin likes to be.

“I’m sure all the spiritual and historical truths” of his latest recording “shape the way it feels to me, but I’m just inside the music when I’m singing,” he says.

Even so, “I think there’s something profound and timeless in these songs,” McFerrin adds.

As a child, McFerrin played the clarinet, but began his musical career as a pianist — at 14.

After leading jazz groups, studying composition, touring with the band that accompanied the Ice Follies show band and playing for dance classes, McFerrin realized that his destined instrument was his voice.

But his background in instrumental music played a key role in his vocal approach, which goes beyond melody to encompass rhythm and harmony as well.

“And for years it almost seemed to me that the melodies without words had deeper meaning,” McFerrin writes. “But this album has brought me back to the joy of singing words to people.”

While working on “SpiritYouAll,” McFerrin “spent a lot of time with the Book of Psalms, which is basically a songbook right in the middle of the Bible,” he says.

“I think all singing is praying,” McFerrin continues. “These songs mean a lot to me. I haven’t toured the U.S. in a long time, and the idea of singing songs that lots of people know with the same band night after night sounds really great to me.

“I want to stretch out and get comfortable. I want people to bring their kids and their grandmothers. I hope everybody will come sing along.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@
reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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