Bobby McFerrin has always been a wildly restless talent, continually looking to develop fresh ideas for the human voice and place it in -- sometimes wildly -- different contexts from simple folk and pop songs to improvisational settings to strident compositional frameworks. His productions include duet records with instrumentalists Chick Corea and Yo-Yo Ma, as well as the creation of a virtual a cappella choir from his own vocal overdubs. All of this said, there has always been “something missing” from his recorded works that shows itself in concert, outside recording studio confines. On VOCAbuLarieS he seems to have found it. This is the work that anyone remotely interested in McFerrin needs to hear. Collaborating with composer, arranger, and conductor Roger Treece over seven years, McFerrin’s been given a foil who not only understands his previous output, but can focus his ideas and take them to the next developmental peak. The pair employed over 50 vocalists from different genres and nations to create a virtual choir in the studio. According to a press release, they cut over 1,400 vocal tracks. The music here is “fusion” in the most seamless and beautiful sense of the word: classical, pop, soul, Middle Eastern, African, and Eastern European vocal traditions all move together, and encounter one another head-on. They meld into a whole where the seams show, but are elegantly aurally tailored to create something entirely new -- even if the material always isn’t. Three selections here come from the controversially beautiful Medicine Music album, from 1996. But the versions here are radically different than the originals; the voices, rhythms, textures, and even ambiences of these voices have a more muscular quality, much more forceful and complex while simultaneously being more "listenable." The opener, “Baby,” provides proof. In the original it was a simple folk song, a lullaby with African roots; here is it a harmonically challenging, intricate labyrinth where 22 singers accompany McFerrin as well as a rhythm section. ”Wailers” is a pulsing chant with Middle Eastern, African, and Eastern European harmonies woven together by singers who include Sussan Deyhim, Luciana Souza, and Janis Siegel. ”He Ran to the Train” combines -- in a wholly new way -- two tracks from Medicine Music in an explosively knotty, compellingly emotional call-and-response piece that is as rhythmically complex as it is harmonically. The set closes with “Brief Eternity,” a new piece of modern sacred music that evokes everything from Gregorian chant and polyphony to John Tavener and Arvo Pärt. VOCAbuLarieS is easily McFerrin’s finest moment on record as well as his most ambitious, and should win him some new fans even among cynics.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek