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Bobby McFerrin VOCAbuLarieS Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

Seven years in the making, this is a kaleidoscopic celebration of the human voice.

John Eyles 2010

VOCAbuLarieS took seven years to put together, and it shows. Not only is it vocalist Bobby McFerrrin’s most ambitious and wide-ranging work to date, it is also one of the most complex albums ever constructed. Remarkably, it contains more than 1,400 vocal tracks recorded by over 50 top singers, individually or in small groups, before being assembled to create a virtual choir.

The end result has that wow factor which signals an instant classic. Whether your ideal of vocal harmony is doo-wop, The Beach Boys, a gospel choir, Manhattan Transfer, Ladysmith Black Mambazo or beyond, the joyful sounds of VOCAbuLarieS will appeal to you.

McFerrin has always drawn from a broad spectrum of music, mixing and matching his tastes and influences. In his freewheeling concerts, he can switch mid-song from The Beatles straight into Ave Maria, interject some vocalese, organise an impromptu sing-along with the audience or a call-and-response exchange with a choir.

In contrast to the looseness of the live experience, but still retaining its spirit, VOCAbuLarieS is a structured, through-composed album. McFerrin worked on it with vocalist, composer and arranger Roger Treece, a member of his 12-voice group Voicestra. Treece used compositions and motifs from McFerrin’s past work as the starting points for the album’s seven elaborate pieces. These include Baby, McFerrin’s touching anthem to parenthood, which opens VOCAbuLarieS.

Treece has captured the groove that characterises McFerrin’s music, as well as his playful love of voices. The vocals are sung in a range of languages from Arabic to Latin to Zulu, so their literal meaning is secondary to the rich sound created by the constantly shifting harmonies. Although voices predominate, instruments are added sparingly, most noticeably subtle percussion.

Alongside McFerrin and members of Voicestra and New York Voices are such diverse singers as Janis Siegel from Manhattan Transfer, R&B talent Lisa Fischer, and Brazilian jazz vocalist Luciana Souza. The climax of the album, Brief Eternity, pairs McFerrin and Fischer as lead vocalists, creating a spine-tingling combination. But VOCAbuLarieS is greater than any one track, the whole being a kaleidoscopic celebration of the human voice.

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