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Bobby McFerrin pays tribute to father in concert

Bobby McFerrheadlines Symphony Center Saturday night.

Bobby McFerrin headlines Symphony Center on Saturday night.

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♦ 8 p.m. April 20

♦ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

♦ Tickets: $30-$100
♦ (312) 294-3000;

Last time I experienced vocal genius Bobby McFerrin was in duo with Chicago born drummer/pianist Jack DeJohnette at the Montreal Jazz Festival a decade ago. It was an astonishing performance, with the two fighting over the piano stool leapfrogging each other’s musical witticism. McFerrin had the packed crowd at Salle Wilfred Pelletier eating out of his proverbial hand, making them very much participants in the onstage action as an improvised choir.

Such antiphony or call and response hardly originates with McFerrin but is central to his inclusiveness, which has witnessed the marshalling of ambitious choral works — “VOCAbuLaries” (Universal 2010); the barefoot conducting of orchestras - “Paper Music” with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, (Sony 1995), and collaborations with such jazz musicians as Herbie Hancock, The Yellowjackets and, notably, Chick Corea (“Beyond Words” Blue Note, 2002).

McFerrin’s forthcoming release “Spirityouall” recalls the spirituals his opera-singer father sang to him as a child and includes a multi-instrumental sextet with mandolin, lap steel guitar, and ukelele under the aegis of pianist/accordionist and prolific arranger Gil Goldstein. Speaking to McFerrin the Sun-Times learnt that despite the missionary zeal and global expanse of his enquiries and his natural affinity with live audiences, the innovative vocalist- as drawn to the timbre of cello or harpsichord as Beatles lyric - is a self confessed introvert and homebody.

Question:Do you think you took it for granted when you were young that your father broke the color barrier and was the first African American to sing a title role with the Metropolitan Opera?

Bobby McFerrin: Oh I think I took it for granted, I was only about five at the time, but I do remember a lot of parties and a lot of African American classical singers hanging round the piano. There must have been some excitement when he got the contract, but my father never talked about those things.

Q.Do you remember something he said that sticks with you?

BM: Study! Study hard!

Q. How important was the church in influencing your music?

BM: Very much so. I took choral studies with James Bayle at St John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. He introduced me to some beautiful music and was a great improviser. My mother was also a soprano soloist, and there was Verdi’s Requiem and Bach around the house.

Q. Was jazz frowned upon and do you consider yourself a jazz musician?

BM: My parents loved jazz — Count Basie and Dinah Washington, lots of jazz. I don’t consider myself a jazz musician but a folk musician. I like to assimilate and celebrate the music of the folk I am around. But when my career started, if someone asked that question I would probably answer “yes, I am a jazz singer.”

Q. Do you think mellifluence is undervalued in this age when more aggressive sounds get the attention?

BM: It’s the same way as introverts are undervalued, though they are often more skilled at what they do. I like to stay home and be quiet. I don’t like noise. I like to sing and pray. My wife is like Saturday night and I am Sunday morning. It’s hard for me to tour; I’d rather be at home. But I do like to sing in front of people and entertain, put on a good show.

Q. What can we expect from your visit to Chicago?

BM: Expect, I hope, a lot of fun, where hearts are moved and warmed, encouraged. A rousing good time, because my band — Gil Goldstein, David Mansfield, Armand Hirsch, Jeff Carney and Louis Cato — they are strong and very quick in the middle of a tune; if I go somewhere they will find it immediately.

Michael Jackson is a local free-lane writer.

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