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IN PERFORMANCE

Bobby McFerrin, Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau break barriers at Symphony Center

Howard Reich

9:55 AM CDT, April 21, 2013

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Is there any kind of music that Bobby McFerrin does not sing?

Certainly jazz, blues, spirituals, classical, pop and R&B fell easily in his purview Saturday night at Symphony Center, where the protean musician reminded listeners that there are essentially two categories of singers in this world: McFerrin and everyone else.

That's not to diminish the vocal virtuosity that unfolds from other artists' lips. It's just that McFerrin embraces a wider span of music than most of his colleagues, yet he links it all through the warmth of his sound and the humanity of his message.

So it was thoroughly fitting that McFerrin has titled his current tour "Spirit You All," an adroit play on the word "spiritual" that underscored the meaning of this concert and a theme running through his long career: the spiritual link he has forged with his audience through music.

It's true that by McFerrin's standards, Saturday night's show was somewhat low key, or at least even keel. The highs were less dramatic, the intimate moments less hushed than one recalled from so many earlier concerts. Yet McFerrin brought a welcome tonal glow to most of the evening's music, his newly formed band of top-notch instrumentalists emphasizing phrase over technique, understatement over ostentation.

Because McFerrin omitted an intermission, the bond he established with his audience was not disturbed from opening note to encore, the music instead slowly swelling in intensity, if not in volume or rhythmic drive.

Was that an electric guitar wailing in "Fix Me, Jesus"? Well, no, it was McFerrin's snarling, buzzing, throbbing high notes, dispatched as if by some maniacal guitar god, but minus the guitar, of course. The vividness of the performance surely suited the urgency of the song, while McFerrin's preacher-like verbal asides made something of a sermon of this vignette.

The casual listener might have accused McFerrin of pandering to his audience when he launched into an a cappella version of "Sweet Home Chicago," but the multiple vocal lines he kept aloft through a sustained improvisation argued for the deeper purpose of the performance. If you were so inclined, you could follow the bass line, the top line or the chordal implications of the two. The rhythm section – that is, McFerrin tapping his chest – played a significant role, too, leading at least one listener to believe that (what do you know?) there's still some life left in the old tune.

It's possible that McFerrin was just trifling with the audience when he announced, abruptly, that he felt like singing a Frank Sinatra song and proceeded to grope his way through "Fly Me to the Moon," fumbling some of the lyrics. I prefer to believe, however, that he truly, suddenly felt like dipping into Sinatra's swing milieu and landed on a Sinatra classic that McFerrin couldn't quite remember.

That didn't matter, however, because McFerrin deftly captured Sinatra's 1950s, late-night Vegas mood while sidestepping the master's famous phrasing of the tune. You just don't encounter risk-taking of that degree from many major vocalists – jazz or otherwise – these days, and it's thrilling to encounter.

Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau

Two other genre-benders collaborated Friday night at Symphony Center, even if, in retrospect, they seemed like specialists compared to the voraciously eclectic McFerrin.

At first glance, mandolinist Chris Thile and pianist Brad Mehldau would not appear to have a great deal in common. But Thile's folk-pop-bluegrass impulses and mandolin pyrotechnics reflect an open-eared approach to music-making, while Mehldau's jazz vocabulary always has pushed out into rock, classical and other unexpected repertory.

So the fact that these two searchers have found something valuable to say to each other made sense, even if the central attraction of their work was the musical tension between them. Thile, after all, constantly pushes tempos, while Mehldau characteristically hangs back. And Thile's plucked, fast-flying notes on mandolin stand as the sonic opposite of Mehldau's long, oft-lugubrious legato lines on piano.

Music of Fiona Apple, Gillian Welch and Elliott Smith doesn't often turn up on Symphony Center's jazz series, but the idiosyncratic, Thile-Mehldau renditions made questions of genre irrelevant, just as McFerrin's concert had. True, Thile's vocals sounded meek and thin by jazz criteria: His singing on "I Cover the Waterfront" would make Chet Baker seem vocally impressive, by comparison.

But there was no mistaking the joyousness of this music, nor the integrity of its delivery.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich