There’s a sweet spot in an artist’s career that, if they’re lucky, doesn’t last long. It’s the feeling of playing to crowds where more people are unfamiliar with your music than your typical show. The feeling of supporting a band that’s sure to bring a crowd. Most importantly, is the feeling of knowing you’re about to blow the minds of 5,000 concert-goers, and it’s one that you don’t take lightly. Such is how I assume Brooklyn-native Taylor McFerrin must have felt on a blazing hot Sunday afternoon.
Before I enjoy a show, I like to get a feel of the crowd and find out who they’re here to see. “OMG Glass Animals!” would be the general response of most, “I don’t know anyone, I just came for the free show,” would be the response of others. But a select few would say “Oh I’m here for Taylor McFerrin…” and then we’d lock eyes and give one another a sly smile and nod of approval — a simple acknowledgement of the talent we were about to witness.
I first discovered McFerrin a few years ago after a late-nite TED talk binge. He humbly introduced himself and told the crowd that he taught a class at the School for the Blind in the Bronx. In this class, they proved that no individual is bound by surface limitations, but instead are capable of creating art all of their own. The students would all improvise a song (usually through beat boxing) and end up with a finish product that they all made together. I implore you to take a look when you have some time to spare.
Fast-forward a few years to present day, where Taylor McFerrin has played large festivals and small stages alike in support of his most recent album Early Riser. The album is filled with expansive jams with perfect-fitting features when the songs call for a voice from the ether. Standouts include some of my personal favorites: Thundercat, Emily King, his father Bobby McFerrin, and the über talented Nai Palm of Hiatus Kaiyote. They rarely make appearances for his live sets but McFerrin has another secret weapon in the form of drummer Marcus Gilmore.
Gilmore is a force all his own and commands respect from all ears — including McFerrin who made a point to share the stage with him rather than treat him as a supporting drummer. He’s the grandson of Jazz legend Roy Haynes (for those unfamiliar, do a quick google search for a quick ear-blowjob) and has crafted a sound and groove of his own, much like McFerrin. The two bring Early Riser to new heights together. They seamlessly meld the studio tracks with improvisational bouts like during “Decisions,” that take you so far out that you forget where the song started — until they seamlessly bring back in Emily King’s angelic voice for the best feeling of resolution ever experienced. The improv didn’t end there, the duo even created a track from scratch, just for the Central Park crowd.
To say I enjoyed Taylor McFerrin’s performance would be an understatement. It was more of a meeting of minds. From the pit, I would notice quick glances that he would give the crowd when he played his/our favorite parts of songs (for those of you who have heard “Decisions” you know what I’m talking about). But even more important than the connection shared between seasoned listeners are the moments shared between the newest fans. They came with no expectations and (from the reactions I heard) were thoroughly blown away.
So enjoy this sweet spot while it lasts Taylor. Keep Marcus Gilmore close — I wouldn’t mind more of you and him in the pocket for your next album. And most importantly, know that the fight is well worth it — we get what you’re putting out into the universe, and we can’t wait to hear more of it.
[Here’s that version of “Decisions” with the improv jam w/ Marcus Gilmore]