JAZZ REVIEW : McFerrin’s Latest Big Hit: Voicestra

In his Voicestra, Bobby McFerrin has himself another prize.

Nine-time Grammy winner McFerrin, best known for his 1988 Song of the Year, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” made his Los Angeles debut with the 11-member a cappella group Tuesday night at Royce Hall with often spectacular results.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 13, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 13, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 6 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
All that jazz--Singer Sara Jennison was incorrectly identified as Kirsten Falke in a picture of Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra in Thursday’s Calendar.

The polymorphic Voicestra, at UCLA through Sunday, redefines the word versatile . It can be a jazz chorus, a street-corner quintet, a classical duo, an Ionesco-like singing/performance ensemble, a gospel choir and a rap group. And more.

Working from rehearsed material but improvising freely, the Bay Area-based group, which sang with splendid intonation and handled difficult harmonies with panache, quickly won over the audience. Fans cheered loudly for each number, jammed the stage for the finale, “And It Goes Like This,” and offered a long standing ovation at the evening’s end.


There was much to cheer about. The opening “The Garden,” one of many tunes where brief, repeated phrases provided a rhythmic and harmonic foundation for extemporized solos, led to such delights as Kirsten Falke singing “Ave Maria” in a rich alto while McFerrin offered a moving bass line; Joey Blake and the leader doing a wild take on Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance”; McFerrin making a world of sounds--to imitate a thick rock guitar tone, he pressed the microphone directly against his vocal cords--on his unaccompanied “Drive”; and Linda Tillery climaxing the gospel segment with a robust “Swing Down Chariot.”

The women members--Sara Jennison, Rachel Bagby, Rhiannon, Molly Holm, Falke and Tillery--sang the lovely “Somos Tejadores” (“We Are Weavers”) in both Spanish and English, and McFerrin brought down the house with his version of the National Anthem, which ran from high, pure tones to gravelly utterances.

Theatrical elements were an important part of the group’s efforts, as on “The Arrow,” where the group stood in a semi-circle, raising and lowering their arms like a giant bird, as they sang. Earlier, on “Heck-A-Da-Das,” a quintet that included Tillery, Blake, McFerrin, Raz Kennedy and Holm started off doing fast jazz vocalise in unison, broke into solos, then, with McFerrin waving his arms humorously, started singing in a mock- baroque style. As they improvised, they playfully touched and pinched each other, looking like Monty Python taking part in an a cappella encounter group.

Sometimes the high jinks threw the program off course. At one point, McFerrin jumped from the stage and hugged a women listener while he sang to her, backed by a male quartet that remained behind the proscenium. Fun at first, it ultimately seemed silly.


But for the most part, Voicestra stayed right on track, providing a remarkable array of vocal material. Given that this is just its beginning, its future portends great promise.