LIVE: The Gary McFarland Legacy Ensemble @ Madison Theater, 7/14/15
One of the problems with tribute albums is that they usually don’t come with historical perspective. Oh, sure, whoever’s doing the tribute obviously gives the artist’s compositions all the love they feel about the subject, but other than – maybe – a few words about how (insert Jazz Icon’s Name here) was the greatest thing since (insert appropriate metaphor here), you’re on your own when it comes to background. With that in mind, drummer Michael Benedict came to the Gary McFarland Legacy Ensemble’s drop party at Madison Theater with the ultimate answer to this problem: Music and a movie!
If you’ve followed Benedict’s career over the last 10 years, you know McFarland’s music has been a heavy presence. That said, you may be like me and reacted to the singular compositions by saying, “WHO wrote this?” We all got the answer late last year, when Kristian St. Clair’s 2011 documentary “This Is Gary McFarland” was released to DVD. A mash-up of old TV footage, home movies, audio tracks and radio interviews with major names like Willis Conover and Hugh Downs, the 72-minute film is an outstanding portrait of an artist you’re convinced you should have heard of by the time the credits roll. Benedict brought the film to the Madison Theater’s terrific concert space and sandwiched it with five tunes from Circulation: The Music of Gary McFarland, which was at #24 on the national jazz charts when the band took the stage.
The Ensemble was playing short-handed with the absence of all-Universe vibes player Joe Locke, but his absenteeism was pretty much forgotten once the remaining quartet launched in McFarland’s Berklee-era composition “Dragonhead.” A group meditation got things started, with pianist Bruce Barth chording and rolling while Sharel Cassity filled the room with soprano sax and Benedict worked his cymbals with mallets… and then, BOOM! We were launched into the piece’s breakneck groove, with Barth off and running like a thoroughbred at the flat track, sticking and moving with his left hand as his right hand flew across the keys. Cassity eventually took over the spotlight and categorically proved the soprano can actually be fun, while Benedict dropped bombs left and right and bassist Mike Lawrence charged right down the middle.
“Blue Hodge” – an appropriately titled blues McFarland wrote for Johnny Hodges – has Locke leading the way on Circulation, but Cassity filled the space beautifully with soulful alto sax played WAY down low to start, and kicked up a notch or three with each passing chorus. You could easily hear Hodges – an alto sax legend who made his bones with Duke Ellington – having big fun with this composition; goodness knows Barth had fun with it, showing that his best side just might be his bluesy side. The piece also let Lawrence display the tone and lyricism that makes me smile every time he gets to break away from the foundation. The band put a sweet cap on the tune, and then it was time to go to the movies.
If a man is judged by the company he keeps, Gary McFarland should be a name on every jazz fans lips: He wrote and conducted for tenor sax monster Stan Getz; he played and recorded with piano legend Bill Evans (who is shown playing McFarland’s composition “Gary’s Waltz” in concert eight years after McFarland died); the film has interviews with illustrious co-conspirators like Clark Terry, Airto Moreira, Grady Tate, Bob Brookmeyer and Joe Beck. McFarland produced over 30 albums between 1960 and 1971, when he died under mysterious circumstances. One of those albums, 1966’s America the Beautiful, is considered by some to be the first fusion album. McFarland’s musical base was rooted in the Ellington tradition, but he also rode the ’60s pop-jazz movement spearheaded by producer Creed Taylor, and alienated many early fans because of it, but that’s the way it had to happen. In a mid-film interview, McFarland admitted that he “would be crawling the walls” if he could only do one single thing.
McFarland would have been a 21st-century marketing firm’s wet dream. He was as good-looking as he was talented, with the kind of unforced charisma normally associated with another doomed jazzman, Chet Baker. Heroin loomed large in McFarland’s life, too, though he was supposedly clean when someone slipped methadone into his drink at 55 Bar, a well-known hangout in the West Village that’s still part of NYC’s jazz scene. McFarland wasn’t the chemical terrorist’s only victim – another patron died from his own overdose a few days later, and bartender Gene Gabbage (who was also a jazz drummer) nearly died, as well. Maybe there wasn’t anything malicious about how it all went down, but you can’t juxtapose McFarland’s sudden passing with the plethora of work he created in such a short time and not come away feeling cheated.
The Legacy Ensemble knocked three more tunes out of the park after the film concluded. “Bridgehampton Strut” let Cassity and Barth show off their asymmetrical side, and the wild closer “Circulation” was preceded by some words of gratitude for Benedict by McFarland’s daughter Kerri. “One I Could Have Loved,” a piece from McFarland’s most successful album, The October Suite, delivered the knock-out punch. It had a mournful vibe that just hurt your heart after experiencing McFarland’s bright life and sudden exit, and Cassity’s searing alto dug that knife in deep. As great as this band is, and as great a recording Circulation is, I have paraphrase Barth’s own words and say that his music was so much more powerful after seeing the film. Hey, that’s what a little perspective will do for you.
More of Rudy Lu’s photographs of the event at Albany Jazz