Bobby McFerrin, Yo-Yo Ma, and Sergei Rachmaninoff

It’s been quite a hiatus – who knew residency could be busy? Today, my girlfriend sent me the most interesting collaboration I’ve seen since Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party: Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma performing selections from their collaborative album Hush on The Tonight Show.

It’s jaw-dropping this was a live performance! Between Bobby McFerrin’s perfect pitch while arpeggiating and Yo-Yo Ma’s dulcet handling of the melody, their version of “Ave Maria” is one of my all-time favorites. Meanwhile, I’m certain Two-Set Violin would be taken aback by McFerrin’s vocal agility in “Flight of the Bumblebee.” I ended up listening to the whole album as an energizing backdrop to pre-rounding.

This performance totally upended my view of Bobby McFerrin, who I previously only knew for the chart-topping “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Every time I heard that song on the radio, I found the faux Jamaican accent and vapid lyrics incredibly grating. After all “put a smile on your face/don’t bring everybody down like this,” is probably some of the least useful advice one can provide to somebody already struggling. Much to my amusement, McFerrin once said his accent in the song was actually “heavily influenced by Juan’s Mexican Restaurant, which was just around the corner from the studio.

However, after more listening, turns out McFerrin is a wizard. Not only does he have perfect pitch, but also has also mastered overtone singing, vocal percussion, and using the audience as an instrument. As Vox might describe – for McFerrin, the human voice is the ultimate instrument. Even “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was more impressive than first meets the ear. The song was the first (and only) a capella song to ever hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, with McFerrin producing all the sounds heard on the entire track.

A lovely demonstration of leveraging the audience’s musical intuition. For a different take on the audience-choir from Jacob Collier, watch here.

My favorite song on Hush was probably Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. Having played it on violin as a child, I’ve always been quite partial to this piece. McFerrin relies on no vocal tricks – just the melody beautifully rendered – and the interplay between voice and cello is absolutely seamless. For some other gorgeous renditions, try this theremin version by Gregoire LeBlanc, cello version by Rostropovich (arranged by Heifetz), or original version performed by Kiri Te Kanawa.

Side Note: There was an interesting comment I saw from the Pentatonic Scale video that pointed out that “This is made more amazing after realizing he’s moving left to right in the traditional low to high pitches in the audience perspective, but contrary to his own. In other words, as he moves to HIS left, the “notes” raise in pitch, but this is to the right in the audience perspective, so he’s switching it in his own mind.” As someone that has played a little piano, my intuition agrees that left to right generally corresponds to moving from lower to higher pitches. However, I’m unsure if this is a generally agreed-upon correspondence (some kind of widely-used orientational metaphor a la Lakoff) or if it’s more a narrowly culturally bound construction.

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