Improvisation is the courage to move from one note to the next.
Last week, we learned about some of our favorite crooners, and this week, we’re still focusing on singers, but ones whose vocal acrobatics brought new life to scatting with athleticism and innovation.
Al Jarreau (1940 – 2017)
Three years ago, the world lost a great talent and even greater person. Long before there were beat boxers and Bobby McFerrin, there was only Al Jarreau, who bravely and pyrotechnically used his voice in ways never achieved doing vocal drumming, acrobatic vocal leaps across octaves and all with a gorgeous voice. Al Jarreau was the only person to ever win Grammys in three different categories–pop, jazz and R&B– and he won seven total.
Jarreau was born in Milwaukee in 1940 to musical parents – his mother was a church organist/piano teacher and his father was a minister and singer, so most of his first experiences singing were in his father’s church choir. Largely self-taught, Jarreau had a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in vocational rehabilitation, and he worked as a social worker for a time.
Jarreau broke into mainstream culture in 1975 with an album produced by Cleveland‘s most famous music producer, Tommy LiPuma (with whom he later collaborated on several other projects), as well as with some appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson; however, he really became famous as the “Acrobat of Scat,” in 1981 with the album Breakin’ Away. This album had his top ten hit “We’re in this Love Together.” He went on to a long career delighting audiences through his recordings, guest appearances, in soundtracks and concerts.
- From his first album We Got By, here is the title track: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
- From his album Breakin’ Away here is the song “(Round Round Round) Blue Rondo ala Turk”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
- And because it’s so fun to listen to, here is his version of “Spain (I Can Recall)”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Upon his passing, the final notice from his family/friends was an ask to all, one that we can still follow today: “Please find any artistic thing that you can do with passion, and do it. With art in your life, you will be a better family member, neighbor, friend, and citizen.”
Bobby McFerrin (1950 – )
Born to singer parents, Bobby McFerrin was relatively unknown until the age of 32. Over his career, he has captured ten Grammys, a number one BIllboard hit with “Don’t Worry, be Happy,” (the first a capella number one hit), and has conducted classical orchestras; he often guest conducts and has also served as the musical director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Aside from his own projects, he has performed and recorded with Yo-Yo Ma. Herbie Hancock, the Vienna Philharmonic/Wiener Philharmoniker, Chick Corea, Dizzy Gillespie, Laurie Anderson, Al Jarreau, Weather Report, the Modern Jazz Quartet and countless others. He has also presented a TED Talk on the pentatonic scale that is both positive and provocative. Check out that TED Talk here and prepare to be delighted: https://www.ted.com/talks/
McFerrin is a singular, and at times unbelievable, talent–his amazing athleticism, incredible range, the wide variety of timbres he can achieve and his colorfully diverse creative interests make him the vocal equivalent of Art Tatum. He can provide a bass line and drum sounds for himself whilst improvising–it is an unparalleled sonic experience. His voice and his positive spirit continue to be a gift.
- Just as fun, but totally different, here is McFerrin performing “Spain” completely a cappella: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
- With Chick Corea, here he is performing “Round Midnight”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
We’ll leave you with the two of them TOGETHER for an amazing a cappella duet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?