Picks and Pans Review: The Voice

UPDATED 09/10/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/10/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

Bobby McFerrin

McFerrin's second LP proves it is possible to admire and even marvel at an artist without enjoying him very much. Conventional terms such as jazz singer and scat singer fail to describe what the 34-year-old from New York does with his vocal cords. He can uncannily imitate trumpets, percussion and string basses, but being hailed as an "instrumental impersonator," he insists, is "not my dream." He would probably not quibble with the label "vocal improviser." This record captures 10 such solo improvisations from four concerts he gave in Germany last March. On Lennon and McCartney's Blackbird, for instance, he intersperses an oompah vocal bass line with a falsetto rendering of the melody. Along the way he whistles a few bars, punctuates the rhythm with a dry sound like brushes on cymbals and concludes by singing fadingly the last two lines over and over again in a striking imitation of an echo. James Brown's landmark of funk, I Feel Good, gets an even more extravagant treatment, with McFerrin patting his chest percussively and spitfiring a dazzling, comic array of beeps, honks, squawks, froglike croaks, twisted whines, murmurs, pops and indescribable sounds. As he improvises, the seams in McFerrin's extraordinary mechanics show—he gulps and gasps as he changes register. Some listeners will accept these as part of the musical flow, while others will find them annoying. People in the former group will love him madly, while those in the latter will probably not find McFerrin's artistry very satisfying in the end, and not just because of the gulps and gasps. Yes, he's doing something that is unique and novel and quite often amusing. He is not a freak, and he clearly knows his music (he was a piano player before he started singing in 1977). Yet a first impression is the strongest one he makes. His music doesn't ever seem to stick to the ribs. (Elektra/Musician)

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