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Sorry, Bobby, but this time we're not happy

Here's a novel concept for vocalist par excellence Bobby McFerrin:

Lyrics.

Since that fateful night in early 1988, when McFerrin bagged three high-profile Grammys for his fluffy slice of layered a cappella, Don't Worry Be Happy, he's hardly deigned to sing words. That's a shame. The opportunity to shape lyrics into a compelling musical story is one of the most profound gifts a singer has.

McFerrin, instead, has decided to use the human voice as an instrument, improvising liberally. Incessantly. Sometimes, his wordless vocal forays are genuinely thrilling, especially when witnessed in-person. But in recent recorded efforts, McFerrin's improvs have grown repetitive and precious.

Too much of it sounds like aimless chirping _ or McFerrin being a human sound-effects machine.

The concert collaboration with Chick Corea, Play, encapsulates McFerrin's increasingly self-indulgent artistry. Of six tunes (clocking in at 50 minutes), only one has lyrics, the chestnut Autumn Leaves. At first thought, how wonderful: Bobby McFerrin in a duet with Corea on a lovely ballad.

Think again. McFerrin undercuts a potentially sublime moment by playing a smarmy lounge lizard, introducing the song with mock show-biz unctuousness. He slides into a gauzy baritone, but soon enough turns the song into a parody _ accentuating pauses, over-exaggerating phrases, using cliche scat ("shooby dooby doo"), throwing in a few jokey lines. The crowd gets a kick. You had to be there.

McFerrin's vocal gymnastics can be a distraction in other ways, as well. During Corea's too-often-done piece, Spain, McFerrin's vocal bass lines and rhythmic chest-pounding make it all but impossible to concentrate on Corea's solo.

The disc does have moments of strong voice/keyboard interplay, most notably on the improvised Even From Me, in which McFerrin's high, breathy intonations counter nicely with Corea's full-fisted attack. But Play is essentially a forum for vocal grandstanding that comes off as superficial, even obnoxious in spots.

McFerrin's project with Yo-Yo Ma, perhaps the world's foremost cellist, is, again, a largely wordless affair. But Hush is a considerably more satisfying disc. The program mixes familiar pieces from Bach, Rachmaninoff, Vivaldi and other composers, along with a few intriguing songs by McFerrin and a quick, charming turn at Hush Little Baby.

The album's overall mood is meditative, be it on the lovely Grace, an Oriental-tinged McFerrin original, or the album's best track, McFerrin's beautifully melodic Stars. The mood holds for Bach's Air (From Orchestra Suite No. 3) and Musette (from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach), Rachmaninoff's Vocalise or others.

Throughout most of Hush, McFerrin is the scion of self-control, vocalizing his parts high and light. There are two miscues: an awkward slice of uptempo faux-bluegrass called Hoedown (Yo-Yo doesn't exactly grasp the barn-dance esthetic) and a short turn at the frenetically uptempo Flight of the Bumblebee, in which, it seems, McFerrin just wanted to show he could do it.

Make no mistake: Bobby McFerrin is one of the world's great singers. How bad could it be to cut an album of straightly sung jazz tunes or orchestrated standards? The worst that could happen is that it would sell a lot of copies and win a few Grammys.

AUIDO REVIEW

Bobby McFerrin

& Chick Corea

Play

Blue Note

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Yo-Yo Ma/Bobby McFerrin

Hush

Sony Masterworks

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Up next:SOUND BITES

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