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Michigan meets Bobby

Local musicians reflect on performance with Bobby McFerrin

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TUESDAY, Feb. 9 — When Bobby McFerrin took the stage at Wharton Center Saturday, he wasn’t flanked by the kind of musical giants a talent like his usually pulls in. McFerrin, who regularly performs with the likes of Chick Corea and Yo-Yo Ma, instead tapped into Michigan’s healthy reserves of musical talent.

“Bobby Meets Michigan,” the latest installment in the singer’s “Bobby Meets …” series, recruited Michigan residents Mike Jellick, a jazz and classical piano player and composer from Detroit; Marion Hayden, a jazz bass player from Detroit on faculty at the University of Michigan; Tia Imani Hanna, a Detroit-born violinist, vocalist and MSU graduate; Igor Houwat, an oud player and founder of the Mediterranean fusion band Wissal; Alexander Hlvaty, a dancer with Eisenhower Dance in metro Detroit; and Carolyn Koebel, a Kalamazoo-based percussionist who draws on the musical traditions of Latin America, West Africa and the Middle East.

Most of musicians met for the first time at the rehearsal/soundcheck just hours before the show. McFerrin arrived at the Wharton Center while the rehearsal was in progress.

“He just snuck in,” Houwat said. “Eventually, the musicians on stage realized he was there and stopped playing. Then he came on stage and we jammed for like an hour. It was really fun.”

“It was surreal in a really good way,” Hanna added. “Like you can’t believe you’re getting to play with — I don’t want to say an idol, more like a mentor you’ve never met before. You know you’re in the presence of greatness”

McFerrin, who is known for his improvisatory live shows, gave few instructions to the musicians, preferring to see how things unfold. The 90-minute performance was almost non-stop improvised music.

“He had no ego. He let us do what we were going to do,” Hanna said. “The whole thing was to serve the music.”

But McFerrin exerted a quiet control of the group. He used hand signals and other nonverbal gestures to direct the flow of the music, but also found spots to sit back and let the local musicians take the lead.

“We had to be very attentive to each other on stage,” Houwat said. “A jam session — and this was basically a big jam session — can easily devolve into chaos. We needed a lot of sensitivity.”

“He told us to be bold,” Hanna added. “It was a free-for-all.”

Working closely with McFerrin, Houwat noticed a bit of a paradox: The singer’s carefree approach to music is rooted in a disciplined devotion to his craft.

“He was a humble, easygoing guy,” he said. “But also very serious. He has a spiritual approach to his music. There’s an intensity there.”

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