Spontaneous Inventions isn’t just the name of my blog. It’s also the name of a Bobby McFerrin album from 1986.
So, I’m going to talk about the Bobby McFerrin album of that name in this post.
Before “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” became such a huge hit and changed the course of his career, Bobby McFerrin was more or less a unique figure in jazz.
He was a jazz vocalist.
But unlike most jazz vocalists, he wasn’t just singing the melody and lyrics of a song or scat singing. (Scat singing, in case you didn’t already know, is when a jazz singer sings with improvised nonsense syllables that mimic the phrasing and intonation of other jazz instruments.) He managed to broaden the scope of what was considered possible for a vocalist to do.
Probably nothing embodied that more successfully than his album, Spontaneous Inventions.
Most of the album involved McFerrin singing solo at a live concert in Los Angeles (with a few guests thrown into the mix on the other songs). Not only did that involve singing lead vocals and scat singing, it also involved his providing the backing parts himself while keeping perfect time— without being able to fall back on recording multiple parts in a recording studio.
The diversity of instrumental parts he created with his voice and body was impressive, as was the resemblance to these instruments he could attain. In fact, he was so successful in sounding like musical instruments that he was asked to perform the ‘trumpet part’ of a song on the soundtrack to one of the definitive movies about jazz, Round Midnight, which came out the same year as Spontaneous Inventions.
With his hand thumping his chest, he played what he called a “bass snare” part; with his voice, he ‘played’ guitar, bass (both acoustic and electric), drums, percussion, and soprano saxophone, in addition to singing background vocals. He also used a technique that enabled him to sing two notes simultaneously. He even was able to turn audience involvement and his own breathing into further percussive elements in his songs. On his version of “Cara Mia,” for example, he played a wooden stool with his hands like congas, created bass and percussion parts with his voice and breathing, and then sang melody on top of that.
Needless to say, this was radically different from what was ‘normal’ or ‘possible’ for a jazz vocalist to be able to do. To go further, it was pretty different from what singers were supposed to be able to do in any musical genre. While instrumentalists would sometimes try to get human-sounding tones out of their instruments (for a fun example, check out the beginning part of David lee Roth’s “Yankee Rose,” which also came out the same year as Spontaneous Inventions), Bobby McFerrin used his four-octave vocal range to try to get instrumental sounds out of the human voice. And while hip hop had a tradition of human ‘beatboxes’ even before this album came out, beatboxes have typically only used their voices for percussive effects, such as laying down ‘beats’ and ‘scratching.’ Bobby McFerrin, on the other hand, used his voice to play melody, harmony, and bass lines too.
He also managed to mix in other parts of himself— as an artist— to Spontaneous Inventions so that his audience wasn’t just listening to a solo jazz vocal performance.
To begin with, the compositions ranged from jazz standards to the Beatles to showtunes to James Brown to McFerrin’s own original compositions.
He also weaved some non-musical elements into his art that night. He threw in some elements of improvised comedy and conducting. There also was a movement component to what he was doing in his live performance— from body movements that had elements of dance and ‘air band’ that verged on pantomime to facial expressions and body language intended to amuse his audience (see around 2:45 of this video).
I also think of Bobby McFerrin’s Spontaneous Inventions as a sort of high water moment for individuals who persist and put themselves out there. I say that not only because of his artistic achievement (it’s still a darn good album that stands the test of time, in my opinion), but also because Bobby McFerrin’s career was somewhat late-blooming. He didn’t come out with his first album until he was 32. He was 35 when he recorded this concert— 36 when the album was released—and things were finally starting to happen for him.
He started to pick up more respect and renown within jazz circles. He made commercials for Levi’s 501 Jeans campaign and had a Sesame Street appearance the same year. He ended up writing and performing the new Cosby Show theme a year later. (Of course, his life and career changed forever the year after that when the movie Cocktail put a song from his next album called “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” on its soundtrack.)
And finally, while I am not 100% sure that his L.A. concert was “entirely improvised,” I am pretty convinced that most of it was. Certainly, his contribution to his duet with Wayne Shorter (playing the Miles Davis jazz standard “Walkin’ “) appeared to be completely improvised, as did his contribution to his duet with Herbie Hancock, “Turtle Shoes.” Overall, there was something about the performance that struck me, when I first saw it, as being emblematic of spontaneity, improvisation, and fearlessness.
And I would guess that on some level, that was stuck in my head somewhere— 25 years later— when I came up with the name for my blog.
So, for me, Spontaneous Inventions—the album— embodies a lot of what I am excited to write about in my blog.
Improvisation. Creativity. Bringing yourself to what you do, even if it’s not conventional. Persistence and fearlessness in following your vision. Creating unexpected new forms and combinations of elements. And most of all, redefining what is possible.