by Sean Jewell ::
Had Gary McFarland lived longer, his name might be as popular as –or synonymous with– Quincy Jones or Duke Ellington. He recorded over 30 records in a decade, largely wrote his own material, and is now recognized as the missing link between Jazz and Pop. So why haven’t you heard of him?
A new documentary, This Is Gary McFarland, seeks to throw off his obscurity, largely brought about by his untimely, mysterious death, and his refusal to compose for critics. Despite lack of available video footage, some annoying scrolling text, and its chosen aspect ratio, director Kristian St. Clair has put together a heartbreaking work featuring an avant-garde genius (no, really). McFarland’s story is a hidden gem of consistent personal character; his moxie, his dedication to his family, to his music, and to his booze never wain, something his colleagues, family–and demise–all attest to.
McFarland is a strikingly good looking protagonist with a sense of style to match, not to mention that his work with Bill Evans, Gábor Szabó, and Gerry Mulligan are about the grooviest fusion jazz ever recorded for Verve, Impulse!, and his own label Skye. Full of saturated, warm, mid-century technicolor, and tracked with Gary McFarland tunes, the film is remarkably nostalgic for a past we didn’t know we had. Even footage as cliché and tackily-textile as a ’60s wedding, through the lens of an 8mm camera, is heartrending. By the end of the movie my hands were hot to get online and begin collecting his obscure, and truly underrated music.
There is a point in the documentary where McFarland begins to conduct the great Stan Getz orchestra in “C-Jam Blues” by Duke Ellington. One can see even a virtuoso like Stan Getz trying his level best to master McFarland’s wildly abstract version that pops and jazzes Ellington’s tune into an unrecognizable and astonishing orchestral piece. Steve Kuhn follows on piano, playing what sounds like the inverse of an Ellington solo, and the most telling moment comes not from the look of wild-eyed fear in Getz’s eyes, or the roar of the crowd at the end, but from the tap of McFarland’s foot, and the bend of his knee. He stands, back to the crowd, conducting as if the music only needs to flow from his fingertips to be spectacular. Neither the band, nor the crowd–or even Getz–understand that they’re playing the music of the future, the music that brings jazz to the masses, but McFarland clearly does. This is Gary McFarland is a documentary about a visionary man, about genre, but most of all about that as yet unseen moment when Pop and Jazz music first clashed.
The movie is available as a DVD with a previously unpublished CD, a recording of McFarland’s quintet performing live in Seattle in 1965. The CD was originally broadcast on KING FM, and was remastered from the original tapes. Light in The Attic Records has teamed with Century 67 Films and director Kristian St. Clair to distribute as of Nov 4th.