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Bobby McFerrin on a lifetime of breaking into new musical universes / San Francisco Chronicle

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San Francisco Chronicle's Andrew Gilbert writes…..Given his druthers, Bobby McFerrin would not be traveling to Los Angeles this weekend to accept a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. “My wife and kids want me to go, and so does Linda,” he told The Chronicle, referring to Linda Goldstein, his manager since the San Francisco dawn of his career in the early 1980s.

It’s not just that the vocal wizard and 10-time Grammy winner doesn’t put much stock in honors and tributes. On the cusp of his 73rd birthday next month, he’s not particularly interested in wrapping up his singular journey, which has radically expanded creative frontiers for vocalists around the globe. McFerrin is thinking about what comes next.

Even as he carefully navigates the world in a body slowed by Parkinson’s, he’s in the midst of a startling renaissance that unfolds most Monday afternoons at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage. With his new a cappella quintet, Motion, and a cadre of regular and occasional attendees, McFerrin has found a new forum for exploring the art of spontaneous co-creation.

McFerrin calls the sessions “circlesongs,” a practice he documented on the 1997 album of the same name. Combining deep listening with exquisitely acute improvisational skills, he and his veteran crew of vocal explorers — David Worm, Bryan Dyer, Tammi Brown and Destani Wolf — create spontaneous musical forms, often sparked by suggestions or lines from participants. It’s an extraordinary situation where anyone can buy a ticket and get onstage to improvise along with McFerrin and Motion.

Flanked by the men at stage right and the women at stage left, McFerrin presides over the sessions with quiet authority and a cup of tea in hand. The volunteers venturing up to the stage to take the microphone aren’t necessarily trained or experienced singers, but McFerrin and Motion never fail to seamlessly incorporate new sounds and ideas into a compelling rhythmic flow that can encompass R&B and Bach, plainchant and reggae, Indian ragas, gospel, Balkan folk songs, invented languages, doo-wop, sound effects, and beatboxing.

“He does whatever he needs to do to make the music sound good,” Goldstein said. “He makes it funny, or takes it further out, or leads them somewhere new. It’s really what he’s been doing at the highest level for years and years. For a long time we booked shows that we called ‘What’s Next’ with people willing to improvise, dancers, singers. It was Bobby meets Ireland, or Israel, or China. His musicianship is uncanny.”

The contrast between McFerrin’s oeuvre and his fellow Lifetime Grammy honorees is telling.

Taking place the day before the Grammy Awards are televised on Sunday, Feb. 5, the 2023 Special Merit Awards ceremony celebrates a disparate array of artists and acts living and departed, including grunge rock icons Nirvana; rapper/producer Slick Rick; Motown legends the Supremes; Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson; 1920s blues matriarch Ma Rainey; and songwriter and Chic co-founder Nile Rodgers.

The contributions of each can be encapsulated by a single definitive track. In McFerrin’s case, his best-known piece, the 1988 chart-topping a cappella ditty “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” might be his least representative recording. Since the 1982 release of his eponymous debut album on Elektra, McFerrin has conjured a seemingly impossible constellation of projects that run the gamut, from conducting the world’s great orchestras and collaborations with artists from multifarious disciplines to solo performances in which he transforms audiences into impromptu choirs.

“I wasn’t a great conductor,” he said over breakfast at Precita Park Cafe in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood. “I was good, but I was surprised at how quickly I elevated as a conductor — not in terms of reputation, but how all of the sudden I was getting all these conducting gigs. If I wanted to I could have gotten a lot further, but now I’m not thinking about it. I have to get my equilibrium. I could easily topple off the podium.”

In many ways he’s been reborn creatively over the past year. When SFJazz first presented the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Awards in 2020, the McFerrins had recently moved back to San Francisco after about two decades in the Philadelphia area, and the live-streamed event found a very subdued McFerrin in a difficult place. Struggling with his voice after a 2016 Parkinson’s diagnosis, he “was working through depression, not seeing anyone,” he said. “I couldn’t get any sound. I had no control over it. It took me about a year and a half to get through, until Linda said, ‘You still have your creativity. You still have your chops.’ ”

At Goldstein’s urging, he brought together the vocalists in Motion and started an intermittent run of Monday afternoon circlesongs sessions last spring. Far better than a lifetime achievement award, he said, was his rediscovery of his mother’s wisdom about music as medicine for the body and soul. Joining others to sing again, he was reminded that “the voice doesn’t lead,” McFerrin said. “The spirit leads. I just open up my mouth and go. I never know what’s going to come out. I really enjoy the surprise that improvisation brings.”

Bobby McFerrin Circlesongs: Noon-1:30 p.m. Mondays. $35. Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley.        Photo: Petra Hajska

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