Bobby McFerrin reminds us to listen to the voices of New York.

By Howard Mandel

Bobby McFerrin’s exhilarating concert a couple of weeks back with a 40-person choir at Jazz at Lincoln Center reminded me to listen to the voices of New York.

Born here (his father sang at the Metropolitan Opera), McFerrin was raised mostly in Los Angeles and now lives in a forested area outside Philadelphia. But VOCAbuLarieS, his first album in eight years and the centerpiece of his Rose Theater performance, presents an idealistic universalism and wonderful balm, particularly appropriate to our polyglot capitol of urban America. McFerrin’s theme is that everyone can and should sing—however out of tune we may be—to embrace if not realize our heart’s desires.

Bobby McFerrin performs with his son and daughter. Photo by Elizabeth Leitzell

In a mash-up of languages that accommodated references to Earth, Wind and Fire, Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Brazil’s Olodum and Steve Reich’s “Tehilliem,” McFerrin and company gave voice to a breadth of human experience, including our expulsion from Eden, rearing of babies and contemplations of eternity. Uniquely, McFerrin has the gifts of range, taste and imagination to conjure such expression by himself. Performing VOCAbuLarieS with his co-composer and conductor Roger Treece, the Danish troupe Vocal Line, plus a dozen American ringers—who employed lyrics by Don Rosler in English as well as Latin, Sanskrit, Spanish, Italian, Zulu, Portuguese, Japanese, French, Egyptian, German, Mandarin, Hebrew and Gaelic (all annotated in the CD’s liner notes)—and also improvising with his son, daughter and a parade of strangers he daringly invited onstage, the singer was the song. So was his audience, which chimed in harmoniously at McFerrin’s beck and call, as has never happened before in Wynton Marsalis’ hallowed “house that swing built.”

Was it jazz? That became an interesting question only upon recalling that jazz-identified singers since Louis Armstrong have treated vocalizing as just such a natural extension of the living vernacular, heightening words if they use them at all. Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Al Green—each is understood by listeners worldwide on the strengths of their sounds, regardless of language.

These days there are many such singers, and New Yorkers love them. A line of attendees stood in the rain for an hour last week waiting to get into the Blue Note to hear Cassandra Wilson. In Silver Pony, Wilson’s new semi-live album, she evokes lust, loss, ease and urgency, applying her smoky drawl to ancient blues and pop standards by Stevie Wonder, Lennon/McCartney, Hammerstein and Romberg. Wilson now spends much of her time in Jackson, Miss., but wields an imperious earthiness with a sheen of sophistication she acquired by being in the jazz scene here. Sheila Jordan is another example, a woman who summons an array of emotional nuance with a seemingly little-girl voice. Though never a renowned star, Jordan is beloved by aficionados and last week celebrated her 82nd birthday at the Jazz Standard.

Other exemplars are coming right up: Judi Silvano in a 1 p.m. matinee at St. Peter’s Church the day before Thanksgiving, and Janis Siegel of Manhattan Transfer fame in duo with pianist Fred Hersch that night at the Kitano. Broadway and cabaret star Chita Rivera has been getting glowing reviews for the show she brings to Birdland Nov. 26 and 27. Kendra Shank, a forthright, pure-toned singer with expansive repertoire who has labored in the local trenches and toured widely for more than a dozen years, appears Nov. 26 at 55 Bar (starting at 6 p.m.) with her quartet featuring supremely atmospheric guitarist Ben Monder. Fay Victor, partnered by guitarist Anders Nilsson in the Exposed Blues Duo, has gained new fans with her album Bare and sings at 5C in the East Village Dec. 3. Not to overlook those singers with standing gigs like Annie Ross at the Metropolitan Room on Tuesdays, Gregory Porter at Smoke on Thursdays and TC III at St. Nick’s Pub on Sundays.

These are the folks who give voice to our thoughts, longings and sentiments, whether well-worn or half-formed. They push at the limits of language. As Bobby McFerrin asserts in “Say Ladeo,” the music video number from VOCAbuLarieS: “Words only take you so far and leave you/ Wondering just what it was you meant to/ Say what you would say if your heart led the way/ Take away the words, letting all the sounds just play…”

You see, that verse as printed doesn’t convey nearly as much as when you hear McFerrin-and-choir sing it. There’s just something about giving voice to feelings. That’s certainly a message of the upcoming season, when carolers abound.