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Bobby McFerrin

Virtuoso jazz singer

At UB's Center for the Arts, 8 p.m. Saturday.

There are, at last count, two kinds of people in the world: those who love Bobby McFerrin to distraction and those who have never seen him perform.

There is no one like him. There has never been anyone like him before and it's unlikely there will be another one any time soon. Sui generis is the Latin lingo for him; "beyond category" is what he would be called in Ellingtonese.

He's such a virtuoso jazz singer that he's a vocal synthesizer -- the only one extant capable of holding an audience spellbound for 90 minutes while performing alone. He's a composer. He's a symphony orchestra conductor -- currently in residence with the much-respected St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Put it all together and he's probably America's musical shaman in chief, the man whose healing mission seems to be to reacquaint the human race with the spirit of childlike sonic play that rests underneath all music.

This is a man who has asked symphony orchestra musicians to put down their instruments and sing along with him.

He will come to the UB Center for the Arts at 8 p.m. Saturday with his new group, the wonderfully named Hard Choral. It's a quartet, he says on the phone from Minneapolis, made from his last vocal group, the 11-piece Voicestra. "It was too big to permit the musical improvisation I wanted to get into," says McFerrin, "so I pulled three of the members out who I thought were the most creative and the most fun and had the most courage to improvise."

McFerrin, alone in performance, is an extraordinary pied piper, turning an audience of thousands into a musical body. (The message is, "I am music, you are music, the world is music.") If he can do that with ordinary citizens, heaven knows what he can do leading three virtuoso singers.

It's ironic that this man -- one of the most gifted musical entertainers of our time -- is now also deeply troubled by the current belligerence about arts funding and how it came to pass.

"I think the entertainment industry has had a lot to do with it," he says. "There's this book by Neil Postman where the title is very interesting -- 'Amusing Ourselves to Death.' I think that has a lot to do with it. We've gotten so far from the spiritual nourishment that we get from the arts and from music that all of this stuff has become pretty frivolous. The things that the media portrays are very, very superficial. I'm convinced that because of the media, our attention spans have gotten shorter. We have this desire to be amused. Everything has taken on a very frivolous nature.

"People who know me well know that I don't really talk much about things, but lately when I've been up on stage I've been addressing the audience about that very issue, about cuts in the arts. I haven't been on the soapbox railing at the ones who want to do that. Basically, what I've been saying is, 'If they do that, what can we do to ensure that the arts aren't totally eliminated from our lives?' So I've been talking lately about personal responsibility -- to parents, to teachers, to ourselves.

"The bottom line is, as parents, exposing our children to good music. We have to do that on our own. If the arts are no longer federally funded -- which is a possibility -- what we do is for teachers to bring good music into the classroom and play it for kids: spend their own money, bring their own CDs. Bring Beethoven's Ninth and play it, play Mozart while they read or maybe put on John Coltrane and Billie Holiday, just play it, ask questions about how they feel listening to the music or what they think about it. A parent can do the same thing -- change the radio station to another one. Turn the TV off. And dance!"

With his own kids (three ranging in age from 13 to 2), says McFerrin: "I'm just Dad. They've come to all different kinds of performances I've done -- solo voice, my groups, conducting (symphony orchestras). I don't think they have any preferences. With me up there, I'm just Dad."

Though he has been conducting classical concerts for a couple of years now, and enjoying it, he says he has had momentary encounters with a difficult language barrier between him and symphonic musicians. "They wouldn't know what I was talking about if I said, 'Take it to the bridge.' So I had to learn to speak to them in their language, which is what I'm still learning to do."

While he says he's "comfortable" with his conducting technique, he still reads the reviews from classical critics and "it would be dishonest if I said I don't care. They might actually have some positive criticisms that might actually help me. It's been mixed. I've had some very good ones, I've also had some very bad ones. They could be right on. There are some times when I'm not with it. It takes a tremendous amount of concentration to be a conductor. I'm sure after a while with reviews, I won't be interested in reading them at all."

This summer, McFerrin says he will finally get around to a project that was stalled by a slowdown in funding for the San Francisco Opera company -- the composition of an opera with a libretto by Buffalo-born writer Ishmael Reed, who was, with McFerrin, a longtime Bay Area resident.

All McFerrin will say about it is: "It's about betrayal. I call the opera 'Gethsemane Pool.' "

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