Back in the days before the Ottawa Jazz Festival came of age I was a sucker for the Montreal Jazzfest. For several years I mainly stuck to the free outdoor programming but once I got to know jazz a little better I realized what I had been missing and started shelling out for ticketed events.
And it’s a good thing too, otherwise I would have missed out on two of the greatest hours of sound my ears have ever heard.
A friend and I were in Montreal for a few days of festing. We were staying with his brother who was in town studying to be a chef. He had one of those great, cheap hardwood places downtown with barely a stick of furniture except for a hammock chair dangling from the living room ceiling and a refrigerator stocked with the greatest gourmet food ever.
It was the brother’s birthday on July 5th so as a birthday/thank-you gift we bought him a ticket so he could join us for Bobby McFerrin’s Hard Choral on July 7th, 1993.
This was my first time seeing Bobby McFerrin and I’m not sure I was prepared for it. McFerrin came onstage with three (or was it four?) like-minded singers and just floored me. With these four (five?) voices and nothing else Bobby brought us all closer to god. Everything was so rich, so fresh, and utterly spontaneous. We were sitting near the stage and I could actually see his face. I could see his eyes close tight in concentration and go wide with wonder; he contorts his entire face to get the sounds he gets and it’s an incredible thing to watch.
Midshow McFerrin left the stage and crawled over the seats, occasionally stopping to ask someone what their name was. Then, while he continued to crawl over the crowd the entire quartet (quintet?) would improvise a mini concerto based on the name of the delighted audience member. And then it was on to the next name and then the next as Bobby kept stepping from the back of one seat to another covering the front half of the orchestra section.
After a show that was mesmerizing to the point of magical Bobby bid us farewell. Once I had started breathing regularly I suggested the three of us try to get backstage. I had been backstage at Wilfred-Pelletier Place before so I led us to the door near stage right and waited. Sure enough Bobby popped out for a quick meet-and-greet for the half-dozen of us waiting.
After bubbling about how remarkable the show was my friend set to work making Bobby a balloon animal (we worked together as balloon buskers at the time) I asked him to sign my program.
And I will never forget what happened next.
As he took my pen and program in hand Bobby McFerrin casually sang Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee and signed his name. I know 100% that my heart stopped beating for the entire head of the tune. I was speechless and just gaped at the man with thanks in my soul and drool on my shirt as he handed me back the program.
I became aware of Bobby McFerrin in my first year of university when my roommate played me a videotape of Bobby supplying the sound effects for a modern dance troupe. I thought it was cool and picked up his album The Voice, which contains Bobby’s take on Donna Lee. I had listened to that particular track countless times; it completely enthralled me. I think I heard his version before I even heard Charlie Parker’s. Somehow I think Bobby knew this when he sang it to me that night. I tell you, the man is magical.
At the time it was hands-down the greatest concert I had ever seen, and now more than two decades later it is still solidly in the top ten, perhaps the top seven.
I was still numb when we got back to the apartment that night, when my buddy’s brother handed us each a slice of homemade chocolate cake out of the fridge. I swear to you that cake was the single greatest food that has ever, ever touched my mouth. It is so utterly beyond description that I may one day write a 1000-page treatise on it. Perhaps the evening of stellar music played a part, but God as my witness I hung in that hammock chair and ate manna from heaven.
I could go on, but let’s just say I look back at the evening with much fondness.
(For the record, Jojo and I also saw a free afternoon concert starring future Grammy Award winner Billy Childs but I don’t know or care how great he might have been, in comparison to Bobby McFerrin he and his set were nonexistent.)