Tonight, vocalist Bobby McFerrin performs at the Monterey Jazz Festival. The final act on the Arena Stage, he will dip into tunes from "Spirityouall," his new album, which draws on blues, folk, hoedowns, American roots music. It also includes several spirituals that appeared on "Deep River," an album recorded in the late '50s by McFerrin's father, operatic baritone Robert McFerrin Sr.
On "Spirityouall," in other words, McFerrin revisits his family roots through song. I asked him to discuss his feelings about the project.
Q Can you remember being a little boy and hearing your father sing "Every Time I Feel the Spirit" or "Swing Low, Swing Chariot"? How did you feel as a child when he sang these songs?
A I have a couple of very vivid memories. Some are of (composer and choir director) Hall Johnson coming over to the house to work with my father on the spirituals. This must have been as he was preparing to record his album. I remember they talked very earnestly about the proper pronunciation of certain words, about dialect and accents. I had never thought about any of that before. It surprised me. And the fact that Hall Johnson's grandmother had been a slave . . . well, that made me think. It wasn't all as long ago and far away as it seemed. But the thing I remember most is watching my father sing those songs. We went to church as a family sometimes, and my mother talked to us about prayer and about music as prayer. But I never saw my father pray, except when he sang the spirituals.
Q How do you feel today, when you sing these great spirituals?
A I feel joyous, and I feel at peace. The depth of the strength and faith it takes for human beings to endure the sorrows and struggles we face is a God-given grace.
Q How do you define the word "grace"?
A Finding joy and peace and faith, no matter what.
Q Esperanza Spalding sings with you on your new album. In a phrase, how would you describe her as a musician and collaborator?
A A pixie. A kindred spirit. A jubilant soul!
Q In a phrase: how about the late Dizzy Gillespie, who for many years was a fixture at Monterey?
A The ultimate jokester. Playful, fun, incredibly inventive.
Q One more: Robin Williams?
A A human curveball. Full of surprises.
Q I always loved your "Come Together" -- you and Robin. What's the best thing about the Beatles? What do you love about their tunes?
A So many of their songs are like coming home again; feels like you've known them forever when you hear them the first time, like you could sing them every day for the rest of your life and not get bored.
Q Last time I spoke with you, your daughter Madison had just sat in with you at a solo concert; you sang "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." Have your children been joining you on stage lately?
A You know, we've always sung together -- around the house, in the car, the whole time they were growing up, still when they come to visit. I love it when I get to sing with them. Taylor and I have done a few duet shows over the years, and once in a while he comes to sit in with me. Madison is still in school, but this year she's toured a little with the Spirityouall band, singing backup. Jevon is an actor; he's incredibly talented too. I'm very proud of all of them.
Q Can you hear your voice in their voices?
A Sometimes I hear my inflection, the way I'd emphasize something or pronounce a word. Sometimes I hear my sense of humor. But they are all their own people too. Full of surprises.
Q Can you hear your father's voice in your voice?
A Sometimes. Sometimes I just hear his voice in my head. And I have a very strong sense that my approach to music was shaped in reaction to him. My dedication and discipline come from him.
Q You're 63. Are your goals as a musician different now than they were, say, 30 years ago?
A I think a lot is the same, but I understand it better. I think my goal is to bring joy. I don't think I fully understood that 30 years ago, but I think I was already working towards it.
Q How do you hope "we the people in the audience" feel at the end of your "Spirityouall" concert at Monterey?
A Hopeful. Peaceful. Free. Joyful. I hope you feel like singing.
Performing 'Spirityouall' at the Monterey Jazz Festival
When: 10:50 p.m., Sept. 21
Where: Arena, Monterey County Fairgrounds
Admission: Daily festival grounds pass $55, daily Arena pass $142; 1-888-248-6499, www.montereyjazzfestival.org