Bobby McFerrin does gospel. The idea either inspires gales of glee or nervous hesitation. The result is something technically creative and even daring, nothing less than what would be expected from the acappella genius, but not necessarily emotionally compelling. In this work set to folk, country, and a hybrid of jazz folk music, McFerrin plays plenty in his characteristic improvisational style, but Gil Goldstein’s Americana arrangements too often do not offer the prospect of gospel’s transcendent experience. In its effort to display a lightness of spirit, and perhaps to distance himself from McFerrin’s father’s traditional readings of this material, the project erases the blues from these classic songs, making it a skillful but sometimes oddly cool exercise in spiritual music.
With work spanning four decades and award-winning critical acclaim coming from every corner of the globe, it is difficult to find fault with the technically unparalleled McFerrin, who is unfortunately more known for his international #1 hit, “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Unfortunate because the second of three generations of musical McFerrin men has an unmatched jazz, choral, and acappella catalog that is the envy of serious musicians throughout the industry, one only hinted at with “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Yet the creative choices made to brighten and country up so much of the canon of Negro spirituals, several recorded by McFerrin’s father, Metropolitan Opera singer Robert McFerrin, Sr., here feels as if the darkest among these spirituals are robbed of their original power. Sometimes it even seems that McFerrin is reinterpreting some song’s original meaning for the sake of artistic flexing. Replacing that blues power is an unrelenting optimism, which works on joyous cuts like the banjo twanging, jazz virtuosity of “Joshua” also known as “The Battle of Jericho.” With a tune best known as a children’s choir staple, on “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands” (here shortened to “Whole World”), the folksy Southern swing with Esperanza Spalding works because the song itself is one ripe for the innocent, but elaborate play that McFerrin has long excelled in. For her part, Spalding appears no less than four times, serving on some as vocalist and others as bassist, but always helping the proceedings.
Despite indigo shading in the musicians work surrounding McFerrin’s voice on “Wade,” his and Goldstein’s upright bass, tambourine and steel-guitar take on “Wade in the Water,” a hush song about the perils of escaping slavery in the dead of night, is treated with such irreverence that one would have no idea there was any danger afoot at all in those midnight journeys. The swamp blues approach to “Fix Me Jesus,” had a bit of a cry in McFerrin’s voice before he decided to play with it instead of giving in to the desperate plea inherent in the song. Interestingly, assisted by a traditional choir and Esperanza Spalding, McFerrin’s “Glory” finds ways to make room for both his intricately musical vocal ideas and the plaintive storytelling of “Glory” aka “Glory, Glory (Laid My Burden Down)” once made famous by folk star Odetta. It helps that the worship song is already one of testimonial survival, which makes the celebratory uptick in tempo on the cut’s second half feel right on time.
On more original fare like “Woe” and “Jesus Makes It Good” as well as on a re-interpreted Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” McFerrin locates the broken heart of gospel in cuts more modern in approach than the buoyancy in which he tackles classic repertoire spirituals. There is such reverence and understanding in his reading of the optimistic lyrics’ escape from injustice in “I Shall Be Released” that the song becomes kin to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” in its ability to move and defiantly challenge. He digs deep again on “Jesus Makes It Good” bringing an authentic old-man-in-the-pew gospel blues to the song’s tender storytelling, uncovering a thing of simple, stripped down beauty.
Having a relationship to Lizz Wright’s criminally unsung The Orchard and the folk blues of Ruthie Foster, there is as much roots and country music to be found here as old school Southern gospel. “Gracious,” “25:15” and “Rest/Yes Indeed” would all by right at home at Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry, each serving as country tour de forces in their own right. The moving human percussion work on “Rest/Yes Indeed” and the steel guitar of “25:15” alone are worthy of praise, the latter psalm bringing some of the choral work back into the fold for a time.
Throughout Spirityouall, the highly skilled musicians' work of guitarist Larry Campbell, bassists Larry Grenadier and Esperanza Spalding, drummers Charley Drayton and Ali Jackson, and keyboardist/arranger Gil Goldstein are nothing less than perfection. Consumers ready for a more uplifting take of their favorite hymns and spirituals will find much to revel in this bold spin on the canon. More traditionalists may initially lament McFerrin’s readings as a light form of blasphemy, but eventually should be able to find enough in the originals and celebratory numbers to learn to love plenty here, if not this unique approach to McFerrin’s father’s repertoire, here made all his own. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson