Bobby McFerrin leads thrilling performance of “Migrations

Alex Schaaf

First off, I mean no disrespect to the many excellent concerts that have taken place in the Chapel over the course of the last four years. In fact, I almost feel sorry for them. They never stood a chance, really. Simply put, last Friday night’s concert featuring Bobby McFerrin was the best thing I’ve ever witnessed in that building.
When it came down to it, the night featured two headlining acts. The first is obvious, as scores of tickets – well, at least mine – were snatched up solely based on the fact that Bobby McFerrin would be in the building, never mind what he was actually going to sing.
But the second headlining act emerged at the beginning of the night and continued to wow the audience until the last note, and this star was “Migrations,” the composition of Fred Sturm that was performed by a stage-full of performers.
“Migrations,” subtitled “One World, Many Musics,” was a fascinating musical journey, bringing the listener indigenous music from places like Mongolia, Sweden and Australia while adding a hefty dose of Sturm’s own musical sensibilities. In the pre-concert lecture, Sturm explained how each piece was built off of an original recording of a piece of indigenous music.
These original recordings, compiled by Dean of the Conservatory of Music Brian Pertl, were often quite simple, consisting of unaccompanied melodic lines in many cases. Sturm then took the pieces and found ways to rearrange, adapt and transform them into something bigger, something that could be performed by a combination of Lawrence’s Jazz Ensemble, Hybrid Ensemble and Studio Orchestra, as was the case last Friday night. Oh yeah, and Bobby McFerrin.
McFerrin’s contributions to “Migrations” were vital not only to the musical makeup of the piece, but also to the overall presentation of the concert, as his jokes and improvisations were often just as memorable as the music itself. He would often go off into tangents between songs, whether it be singing a random song that had just popped into his head, or improvising an extension of a just-played flute solo, or most memorably, taking a sheet of paper that had fallen from a violinist’s stand and making it into a paper airplane.
The light-heartedness of these diversions were extremely endearing, as McFerrin immediately broke down any sort of “this is important art and must be treated as such” wall that could have otherwise been placed in front of the audience.
Musically, McFerrin’s contributions were often, but not always, improvisations, as the instrumentalists would establish a melodic or harmonic theme to which he would then add his vocal stylings, whether they be mimicking a specific melody, adding percussive beat boxing, or more general scat singing.
Many of the biggest highlights came from more intimate showcases of his powerful voice, as McFerrin and Lawrence’s own percussion genius Dane Richeson staged a “duel” at one point, as the two musicians went back and forth, challenging and complementing each other at the same time. In the second half of the performance, Pertl walked through the crowd with his didjeridu before meeting McFerrin on stage and staging a similar “duel,” as McFerrin did his best to imitate the instrument that Pertl is most well-known for playing.
Besides McFerrin, however, the rest of the performers onstage did a tremendous job of holding up their end of things. The Jazz Ensemble especially displayed impressive versatility, most notably during the encore when McFerrin instigated an improvisatory tune, starting with a sung melody that before long was picked up by the entire ensemble, much to the delight of the audience.
Throughout “Migrations,” multiple arrangements and instrumentations were present, and three of the pieces were single-instrument performances, often performed by the soloist at the very rear of the Chapel’s balcony. These pieces were a beautiful diversion from the full-ensemble pieces, as the melodies of a soprano saxophone or flugelhorn rang through the Chapel, giving a demonstration of the fantastic acoustics of the room. Jake Crowe’s flute solo, making the use of a looping pedal and other effects, drew some of the most impressed applause from the audience.
Overall, this was one of those special nights that won’t soon be forgotten. Bobby McFerrin is a one of a kind performer, and placed among the rest of the Lawrence performers on stage, created a perfect demonstration of the kind of talent and creativity that is right here on campus.