by Ayanna Jacobs-El
I stumbled upon Taylor McFerrin’s soulful and elaborate music by accident. I was first introduced to his sound when his song “Decisions,” popped up on my weekly Spotify Discover Weekly playlist. “Decisions” is a very mellow and gorgeous song that features the outstanding vocalist Emily King. I loved the beat, with its unusual percussion fills, the evolving synths, the through-composed nature of the song, and of course, to top it all off, Emily King’s lovely vocals and floating like silk as she sang with a melancholic lilt.
When I saw that Taylor McFerrin was going to be coming to The Red Room at Cafe 939, I definitely wanted to see what his live performance style was like. The New York-based artist is multi-talented, as a producer, composer, pianist, DJ, and beatboxer. In 2014, he released his first LP Early Riser, on which he played all of the instruments and creatively repurposed live audio clips by chopping them up and using them as samples. Early Riser features many great artists such as Thundercat, Robert Glasper, Nai Palm of Hiatus Kaiyote, Emily King, and legendary jazz vocalist and vocal percussionist Bobby McFerrin, who is Taylor’s father. According to the press release about the concert, “His musical style is influenced by ’60s and ’70s soul, hip-hop, free-form jazz, and electronic music.”
His opener, who I was equally excited about seeing, was Denitia Odigie who goes by Denitia. I was introduced to her music the same way I found out about Taylor’s, through Spotify Discover Weekly (That feature in Spotify is an amazing way to discover new artists). Denitia was performing solo at the Red Room, but she is a part of a duo called denitia and sene. I love the electro-pop duo’s songs “cassanova.” and “Divided“, so I was really interested in seeing how Denitia’s music as a solo artist would sound. She didn’t disappoint! Her lyrics were very catchy, production was engrossing, her voice was honest and rich, and she was so chill and friendly the entire set. Throughout her seven-song set, in which she played all original music, she switched between singing, playing guitar, and playing samples on a small keyboard that was connected to a Mac using Ableton Live. Some of my favorite songs from her set were the bubbly and warm “Planes,” super-catchy “Waiting,” and “Bound to Happen.”
When it was time for Taylor to take the stage, he had a very low-key entrance and immediately greeted the audience. He mentioned that a while ago he went to school in Boston for 1 year and that he probably should have attended Berklee. He asked the audience if they knew his younger sister, singer and songwriter Madison McFerrin, who graduated from Berklee in 2014, and a few people shouted that they did. The McFerrins are a very talented family – his brother Jevon McFerrin is an actor – and has starred in the smash-hit rap musical Hamilton. Taylor’s relaxed and conversational attitude continued throughout his entire performance which was something that I thought really made the audience feel relaxed and receptive to his performance.
Taylor is still in the process of creating his next album, so his approach to the performance was mainly improvisational, which also involved a few reworks of his songs off of Early Riser. I have never been to a performance where the artists had no set list and came up with all of their ideas on the spot, so the way that Taylor handled this performance was really a showcase of his creative ingenuity, stellar production talent, and killer keyboard and beatbox skills.
Taylor built each piece from the ground up by recording live loops in Ableton. He would sometimes have a partial beat already made but some songs he would add each element by using his synthesizer, voice, and samples. He even took audience requests which led to him playing “Florasia,” his remix of “Laputa” by Hiatus Kaiyote that features Anderson .Paak, and my favorite “Decisions.” All three of the recognizable songs garnered a positive and enthusiastic reaction from the audience members and everyone was completely transfixed during his completely improvised pieces. He also brought Denitia back to the stage so that they could improvise together. Taylor and Denitia had just met before the performance but they were able to really connect during their improvisation and create something truly beautiful.
At one point in the night, he decided to make a Wu-Tang Clan type beat from scratch and asked if anyone in the audience was a rapper. Eventually, an audience member got up enough courage to take the stage with Taylor. He then delivered a ‘fire’ rap in Spanish over Taylor’s heavy beat. Towards the end of Taylor’s set, he invited current Berklee student Tomoki Sanders to play tenor saxophone with him. I could tell they were having a blast and Tomoki was grooving and showing off all his best licks.
I’m really looking forward to hearing what Taylor McFerrin will release next! He is so humble and extremely talented and innovative. I think more artists should incorporate some level of improvisation into their performances because it really allows for the audience to see their creativity at work and pushes the artist to break out of their comfort zone. If you haven’t listened to Taylor McFerrin I highly suggest you check out his Early Riser LP and follow him to find out when his new release drops.
DID YOU CATCH TAYLOR MCFERRIN’S SHOW? LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THOUGHT IN THE COMMENTS!