Don’t worry, just beatbox

Ella, bobby, tom-APaul Conn of iPerform3D recently turned me on to a vocalization style rooted in scat—as personified by Ella Fitzgerald, twisted around by Bobby McFerrin over two decades ago, and now turned on its head by performers like Tom Thum. Purists and jazz enthusiasts stop reading here, before my layman’s (lame?) comparison instigates irregular heart palpitations.

Ella is the embodiment of scat, which American music critic Will Friedwald describes as “…improvised (but) the melodic lines are often variations on scale and arpeggio fragments, stock patterns and riffs, as is the case with instrumental improvisers.” In other words, this is serious jazz vocalization, man.

Bobby McFerrin—also a serious jazz vocalist—soared onto the pop charts in 1988 with a whimsical and divergent take on scat, as exemplified by his hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Worry.” Though his trademark, tongue-in-cheek vocals seem playful, music critics have approached his styling with thoughtful analysis.

“Attempting to transcribe the improvised vocal utterances of Bobby McFerrin,” writes music author Jeff Tamarkin, “would be a most daunting task: at times it’s almost as if a symphony orchestra, choir and rhythm section have lodged in one human being….What Bobby does with his with his voice technically—the way he incorporates dense rhythms, extraordinary scales, tricky intervals and such—is complex enough that many accomplished musicians and educators have studied and dissected it.

Segue now to the new school, identified as beatbox, which I’ve learned may be defined narrowly as imitating the sounds of a drum machine with one’s voice. Multiple examples of this type of beatboxing can be found at http://matadornetwork.com/nights/10-beatboxers/.

Now consider Tom Thum, the Australian performer that Paul Conn brought to my attention. Whereas earlier vocalists seem to have their feet firmly planted in jazz and hip-hop, Thum employs his talents as though he were an Ed Sullivan vaudevillian act. Despite his tongue-in-cheek approach, I think this guy has some serious cred.

To make your own comparison, check out Ella at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbMIbOuENro. Bobby can be found singing his hit at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-diB65scQU&feature=kp, and Thum performs during last summer’s TedX in Sydney at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNZBSZD16cY&inf_contact_key=672d70c0587b4eaa309d0474cb1477eafdde4faec662581e7d767b9ec9f2dde0,.

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