On Thursday, Bobby McFerrin comes to Hill Auditorium to present his latest project, “spirityouall.” McFerrin’s new endeavor seeks to pay homage to African American spirituals and to his father, an operatic baritone who himself was a dedicated performer of these traditional songs. McFerrin has made a full exploration of his roots, and his performance on this tour will be freshly self-aware.

Bobby McFerrin: spirityouall

Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
Hill Auditorium
From $10

African American spirituals are folk songs that form the foundation of African American music. They form a highly improvisatory, oral tradition that’s largely responsible for the formation of countless genres, including jazz and hip hop. Robert McFerrin Sr.’s commitment to spirituals has been a formative influence for son Bobby McFerrin throughout his career, and it shows in his performance style.

Since spirituals were passed along without notation and without accompaniment, improvisation is a given.

“I’m sure Robert McFerris, in his spirituals — and he sang a lot of spirituals — really knew how to improvise,” said Professor Emeritus of Voice Willis Patterson, a personal friend of McFerrin Sr. and former president of the National Association of Negro Musicians. “So I’m sure that ability, or that tendency, to improvise is something that Bobby took off of. Improvisation is the name of his game.”

McFerrin’s vocal technique can also be partly attributed to his father’s influence.

“Both his parents were active singers … He came about singing the way a lot of kids come about walking.” Patterson said. “(His) vocal ability is something I think is a natural product of the genes of his mother and father … His adaptation of his talent to performance is something that he came naturally by.”

With “spirityouall,” McFerrin brings the ideals and legacy of his father to the public in a way that his father himself was not able to do. In this way, the project is just as much a service to his father as it is a development in his work.

“(McFerrin Sr.) came along at a time when African American males were not necessarily a highly prized commodity for the Metropolitan Opera,” Patterson said. “In fact, there was a lot of problem with even the idea of having an African American male singing … so he didn’t have the impact he should have had.”

McFerrin is known for unique performances that feature his voice as the lead melody, his voice as the bass, his voice as accompaniment and his hand on his chest as the percussion. In other words, he’s an unpredictable, virtuosic one-man ensemble.

“The art of the spiritual is in itself a personification of the whole idea of improvisation. While it started off primarily as an asset to aid in the work and to aid in worship — and as an aid to the relief from slavery — it took all kinds of forms,” Patterson said. “(McFerrin’s) going to find a way to replicate the accompaniment to these spirituals while he’s singing the vocal line and maybe making it lead in a way into jazz as a jazz ballad and coming back to its originally conceived melody and harmony.”

One reason to be present for McFerrin’s concert is for his pure virtuosity.

“(McFerrin) is a genius in terms of how he uses his vocal instrument … He’s just a freak of vocal facility,” Patterson said.

“There are not very many people in a 100-year period who will be able to represent that level of uniqueness to the extent that Bobby McFerrin will. If there’s a compelling reason for … potential audience members to come, it would be because they’re never going to hear anything like it.”

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