J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, July 13, 2015

This is Gary McFarland, in Albany and on Fandor

The Israeli Broadway musical To Live Another Summer, To Pass Another Winter had some surprising spring in its step, but pioneering jazz-and-pop musician-composer Gary McFarland’s work-for-hire supervision of the original cast album hardly seems like a fitting final session. Alas, fate and a criminally irresponsible prankster would deem it so. McFarland’s life and music are surveyed in Kristian St. Clair’s This is Gary McFarland (trailer here), which screens tomorrow in Albany in conjunction with a performance of the Gary McFarland Legacy Ensemble—and also streams online for Fandor subscribers.

McFarland died too soon and he started playing professionally unusually late in life. Somehow, in between, he still had time to record absolutely classic sessions with Bill Evans, Steve Kuhn, and Clark Terry. He broke into the business as a vibraphonist, but soon became more in-demand as an arranger and composer. He is now most in/famous for his trailblazing pre-“fusion” fusion of jazz and pop music, which overshadowed his Third Stream-esque classical style jazz arrangements.

Had he lived longer, the rest of the world might have caught up with McFarland. Frankly, it is rather baffling his funky environmental protest album America the Beautiful has yet to catch on. Sadly, he did not survive to see jazz-pop fusion reach critical mass, due to no fault of his own. Yes, St. Clair makes it clear McFarland struggled with many of the demons that afflicted his fellow musicians, but he had nothing to do with the fatal dose of methadone that killed him. Not afraid to name names, the film calls out Mason Hoffenberg (co-writer of Candy with Terry Southern), a registered methadone user who was at the 55 Bar on the fateful night McFarland and others were mysteriously dosed with the potent drug. Gee, didn’t the counter-culture have the darnedest sense of humor?

For the most part though, St. Clair focuses on the music, incorporating extensive musical samples into the film. Logically, he includes generous selections from the America concept album, but there are also a number of less obvious choices, such as “High Camp,” a McFarland tune recorded by Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond on his only LP as a leader (and a personal favorite around here). For perspective and reminiscences, St. Clair sits us down with a number of McFarland’s legendary friends and colleagues, such as the aforementioned Terry and Kuhn, as well as Bob Brookmeyer, Grady Tate, Phil Woods, Chet Amsterdam, and Airto [Moriera].

Visually, TIGM is rather lively by documentary standards, vividly conveying a flavor of McFarland’s career through periodic montages of record jackets and press clippings. St. Clair has an ear for McFarland’s music, picking selections that best reflect the bright tonal colors of his music. Admirably well done, This is Gary McFarland is highly recommended in its own right for Fandor users. It will should also make for quite an event as part of the Gary McFarland Legacy Ensemble concert-tribute, which should be a terrific show, since it features the piano and arrangements of Bruce Barth. For all our lobbyist readers, the program starts at 7:00 this Tuesday (7/14) at the Madison Theater in Albany.

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