Monday, November 20, 2017

"Wish Me Well" - The Music of Gary McFarland by the Mark Masters Ensemble

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Gary McFarland was unknown at twenty-eight when he turned up at a 1961 rehearsal [of Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band] with two pieces, "Weep" and "Chuggin'," profoundly influenced by Ellington and Strayhorn.

When he died tragically ten years later, his reputation had been sullied by several com­mercial projects. But the McFarland that Mulligan sent on his way was an impressive writer (he soon fulfilled his promise with The Jazz Version of How To Succeed in Business, Point of Departure, and The October Suite), with an ear for melody and the ability to layer rhythms in the wind sections.

Like Bob Brookmeyer and Thad Jones, McFarland extended El­lington's harmonic density, employing what the arranger and educator Rayburn Wright called "grinds"—major and minor seconds woven into the voicings.”
- Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz [p.362-363]

“This recording is a culmination of something that started almost thirty years ago when Roger Rickson put into my hands Gary McFarland's Skye LP Today (1970), that led to my hearing everything else McFarland had written, including his brilliant album conceived for pianist Steve Kuhn The October Suite (1966).

A gifted arranger, wonderful tunesmith and musical chameleon, McFarland was a person who put his stamp of individuality on everything he touched. Had he lived longer and continued to grow musically, he would be held in the same high esteem today as Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Holman, and Gil Evans. The immediacy of his writing and the poignant nature of his songs, many of them tinged with more than a bit of melancholy, is undeniable.

The American Jazz Institute is pleased to present this project, the first of its kind, built around Gary McFarland's music. Our endeavor was to use McFarland's music as a springboard for these wonderful musicians to sing their own songs. This recording is dedicated to a great teacher and friend, Jack Montrose, who passed away in 2005.
—Mark Masters, Musical Director of the American Jazz Institute

What do Granchan Moncur III, Dewey Redman, Lee Konitz, Clifford Brown, Steely Dan, Jimmy Knepper, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, and the Duke Ellington saxophone section have in common?

Give up?

The music of each of these artists has been the focus of a reinterpretation by composer-arranger Mark Master who also heads up an organization called The American Jazz Institute.

Each musician’s compositional oeuvre becomes the object of a year-long arranging “project” for Mark who often puts on concerts of the reinterpreted music featuring musicians who have evolved, over the years, into ongoing members of the Mark Masters Ensemble.

After the musicians have had a chance to rehearse the music associated with these projects and perform it in concert, Mark then takes the ensemble into the recording studio to save the music for posterity. Some of it is issued on a self-produced basis, but more recently, many have been issued on Capri Records and you can locate copies of these AJI CDs via online vendors or order them through the AJI website.

Kristian St. Clair’s informative and well-written insert notes provide the following encompassing overview of the Masters McFarland Project.
“All but forgotten, Gary McFarland has long been relegated by jazz history to footnote status, usually only mentioned for his break-out work as an arranger/composer for Gerry  Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band  in the early Sixties. The conventional wisdom goes something like this: Brilliant self-taught arranger composer showed great promise but squandered his talents on easy listening projects in the late sixties and died young. As is often the case with conventional wisdom, it is wrong, and anyone who has cared to dig a little deeper into McFarland's oeuvre will know this to be so.

One of these people is Los Angeles-based arranger and composer Mark Masters. Masters likes to tell the story of how an early mentor turned him on to McFarland's 1970 LP Today. That particular album was dismissed by many who should have known better as one of those "easy listening" projects. Those who have heard this particular album have been moved and inspired by McFarland's spare arrangements for flute, cello, trombone and his own vibraphone and vocals. For Masters, it was obviously an intimidating task to arrange an arranger's compositions, but Masters has succeeded with aplomb, quietly paying homage to McFarland's unique style and underscoring the pieces on this record with his own unique style.

This current album had its origins in a concert of Gary McFarland's music Mark Masters staged in early 2002 which featured Gary Smulyan as the guest soloist. That concert was a success and Masters resolved to make an album of his arrangements, augmented by some new ones specially crafted for this album. For anyone already familiar with McFarland's music, this album will be a treat, as it includes three never-before-recorded compositions, two of which were written for but never recorded by Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band. If you're new to McFarland, this album will be a great introduction. Either way, this album is a joyful revisitation of McFarland's abundant musical talents. McFarland died in 1971 at the age of 38, so there won't be any "new" McFarland albums on the horizon. This one is the next best thing.

Tree Tops, the album opener, is one of the three never-before-recorded    McFarland tunes, which is given a great treatment by Mark Masters with a light and loping vamp in the background that gives way to great solo work by trumpeter Tim Hagans, pianist Steve Kuhn, and baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan. The piece is no doubt an ode to McFarland's rural upbringing in Grant's Pass Oregon during the late forties and early fifties. Next up is Monk's Sphere, another unrecorded piece, originally written and performed during McFarland's stay at the Lennox School of Music in 1959. His classmates then included Steve Kuhn, Ornette Coleman, Margo Guryan, and Don Ellis. The faculty included Bill Evans, John Lewis, and Max Roach. On this one, dig the bluesy trombone solo by Dave Woodley.

Weep, Chuggin' and Kitch were tunes all written for and performed by the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band and helped cement McFarland's reputation in early sixties New York City. Weep and Chuggin' both hark back to one of McFarland's primary influences. Duke Ellington, and were his Verve Records debut on the Mulligan LP A Concert in Jazz. Masters' reworking of Weep features outstanding solo work from studio-vet Gary Foster who has recorded with everyone from Milt Jackson to Bob Dylan. Kitch was never recorded by the Mulligan band and is given its recording debut here with top-notch results from all involved. Tree Patterns is a composition that originally appeared on the criminally neglected Gary McFarland/ Bill Evans collaboration that appeared in 1963 after the pianist had signed with Verve. The original arrangement was for string quartet augmented by a few reeds and Bill Evans' delicate solos. Here, Masters fleshes it out in a more muscular big-band version that is propelled forward by great solo work from Tim Hagans on trumpet, Gary Smulyan and bassist Darek Oles.

Summer Day was originally recorded during McFarland's one semester stay at Berklee School of Music in Boston, before he made the move to New York. I Love to Say Her Name was written for Gary's wife Gail and originally appeared on McFarland's Point of Departure album for Impulse in 1964. It is a joyous and buoyant composition that Masters turns into a great showcase for baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan. Why are You Blue? is an evergreen composition that has been recorded by the likes of Bob Brookmeyer, The Modern Jazz Quartet and Johnny Hodges. There is a great story of McFarland writing out charts for the Hodges recording session. The band did one run through of the arrangements the way McFarland had written them and then afterwards Hodges turned to the band and said, "Now forget about the arrangement." It was a great early lesson on in-studio spontaneity that McFarland carried with him through his mid-sixties bossa-jazz projects Soft Samba and The In Sound.

Of special mention on this album are the tunes Gary's Waltz and Wish Me Well, both showcases for pianist Steve Kuhn, a jazz legend in his own right. This album is a bit of a homecoming for Kuhn, who had a close personal friendship with McFarland since they first met at Lennox in 1959. Together, they briefly played on a Stan Getz tour in the early sixties, appeared in a TV special with Getz in 1963, and recorded the now-classic collaboration October Suite in late 1966. McFarland's last released recording project before his untimely death was Steve Kuhn's self-titled Buddah Records debut released in 1972.         

Gary's Waltz was originally recorded by Bill Evans in the late seventies as a tribute to his lost friend. It is a beautiful longing melody that shows off McFarland's profoundly melancholy side. Kuhn starts things off magnificently and Masters gradually enters the proceedings with a few voicing that are reminiscent of, dare I say it, Brian Wilson. As Kuhn's piano builds to a crescendo, the big band comes roaring in for the finish. For anyone familiar with Evans' many recordings of this piece, this new version will be a welcome reinvention.

Wish Me Well closes out the album. It is a wistful and fond farewell,  performed  to  perfection, by Steve Kuhn in a trio setting featuring Bill Evans alumnus Joe La Barbera on drums and Darek Oles on bass. McFarland was always a melodist first and an arranger second and that is very much evident when listening to this haunting piece. It lingers in the mind long after the recording has ended.

Gary McFarland is long gone and all but forgotten, but as long as there are musicians around like Mark Masters, profoundly affected and influenced by the brilliant canon of work McFarland left behind, there is hope that more people will discover the joy, the sadness, and life affirming gift of Gary McFarland and his music.”
—Kristian St. Clair

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