Gary McFarland: In the late 1950s and early ’60s, a new breed of jazz arranger began to surface: Photos, Videos

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Some were deeply influenced by modern classical orchestral music. Others such as Johnny Mandel, Manny Albam, Johnny Pate and Oliver Nelson were swayed by the drama and incidental melodies of television and the movies.

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Among the latter group, perhaps the most innovative and musically dashing of them all was Gary McFarland. Born in Oregon in 1933, McFarland was something of a savant, teaching himself to play boogie-woogie piano as a child. In the Army in the early 1950s, he bought a set of vibes out of boredom. After a summer at the Lenox School of Jazz in Lenox, Mass., McFarland dropped out in 1959 to write big band arrangements.

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So many of McFarland’s albums in the 1960s are standouts and hold up remarkably well. Over the past two days, I found myself listening repeatedly and with awe to Point of Departure. Recorded for Impulse and producer Bob Thiele in September 1963, the album has a gentle, folk-like quality that was prevalent before the Beatles and electric rock arrived in the U.S. in 1964.

Remarkably, the group McFarland assembled for Point of Departure was just a sextet: Willie Dennis (tb); Richie Kamuca (ts,oboe); Gary McFarland (vib); Jimmy Raney (g); Steve Swallow (b) and Mel Lewis (d). What you notice first about the music is its sophisticated cinematic quality. The delicate quality makes you feel wistful. Instruments sigh rather than project.

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Producer Creed Taylor, who was the head of Verve in the early 1960s and signed McFarland to record multiple albums for the label, noted this when I interviewed him about McFarland for a Wall Street Journal essay in 2014 [photo above, from left, Gary McFarland, English producer Jack Parnell and Creed Taylor]:

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There was this sensuality and freshness to Gary’s music that made you instantly admire what you heard,” said Mr. Taylor, who produced McFarland’s Verve albums in the ’60s. “I first met Gary in early ’61 and hired him right away to arrange an album for Anita O’Day. Gary could score these beautiful floating phrases that were so hip.

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Lewis’s drumming throughout is feathery and provocative while McFarland’s vibes are stirring and inquisitive, which is true of the other four musicians on the date. The sextet operates both as a unit and as a collection of individual sounds and attacks. But rather than make pronounced statements, the instruments seem to be asking questions.

The album features six McFarland originals and Mark Lawrence’s Love Theme From David and Lisa. All have the flavor of a Sunday morning in New York in the early 1960s. Or a movie that shows a couple out for a walk during this period in an empty Greenwich Village or Chelsea. The music has the feeling of youthful curiosity and solitary contentment.

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McFarland is one of my favorite arrangers of the decade. Not all of his albums are perfect. The maudlin Soft Samba Strings in 1965 and Zoot Sims’s dreary Waiting Game in 1966 come to mind. But when McFarland clicked—and he did so often—the results are cooly textured and delightfully addictive. His approach also varied from album to album but retained their innocence.

For example, his first six albums leading up to Point of Departureare exceptionally good—Anita O’Day’s All the Sad Young Men,Bob Brookmeyer’s Gloomy Sunday, his Essence with pianist John Lewis, Brookmeyer’s Trombone Jazz Samba, Stan Getz’s Big Band Bossa Nova and The Gary McFarland Orchestra with Bill Evans.

But Point of Departure marked a solid shift for McFarland and lives up to its name. It’s the work of an artist who finally found himself and a new jazz sound that was all his own. Once again, producer Bob Thiele at Impulse was shrewd enough to spot McFarland’s value and give him space to express his art his way.

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Dig Pecos Pete, Love Theme From David and Lisa (a film directed by Frank Perry that McFarland said he saw five times) and Hello to the Season for starters. All are catchy but never slip into commercial quicksand. Toward the end of Amour Tormentoso, we get to hear McFarland sing in that bah-bah style that was all his own. On his next album, Soft Samba (Verve) in 1964, he used his bah-bah singing style throughout to great effect, at Creed’s suggestion. The pop covers were masterfully arranged.

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Sadly, the drug culture of the 1960s and McFarland’s good looks and ego eventually caught up with him, particularly as the music of the new decade pulled away from him. As I wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2014…

On the afternoon of November 2, 1971, jazz vibraphonist, composer and arranger Gary McFarland left a Manhattan recording studio and headed to the 55 Bar [above] in Greenwich Village. A short time later, the 38-year-old McFarland collapsed in the bar and died almost instantly. The official cause of death was a heart attack, but it soon became apparent that the seizure had been triggered by liquid methadone that was added to his drink and those of two friends who were with him. One of them, jazz drummer Gene Gammage, barely survived but never disclosed the events of that day, while the other, writer David Burnett, went into a coma and died several days later.

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Such promise. What a shame. As his albums show, McFarland was New York’s Henry Mancini. Few other arrangers on the East Coast could write and arrange music that so perfectly captured the feel of thinking young adults—not the finger-snapping martini set but the introspective wine crowd. [Photo above of Gary McFarland in the studio at the vibes with his arm raised]

JazzWax tracks: Why an album this superb is out of print and unavailable in the U.S. on CD or at Spotify or iTunes is beyond me. Abroad, the album is available on both platforms. Most likely a rights issue.

The film David and Lisa (1962), a silly psychological drama by today’s standards, but the opening music is worth hearing to compare with McFarland’s interpretation…

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