Gary McFarland

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The Gary McFarland Orchestra
Special Guest Soloist: Bill Evans

by Kristian St. Clair

"if gary were alive today he would tell you that that was the most amazing session he was ever at. it was certainly the most amazing i was ever at!" so says jazz writer and sometime lyricist gene lees, who has attended his share of classic jazz recording sessions.

in 1963 both arranger newcomer gary mcfarland and already-jazz legend bill evans were newly signed to the verve label. evans had just come off his string of classic albums for riverside, not to mention his pivotal role in miles davis' "kind of blue", that redefined the jazz piano for generations to come. however, he was still struggling to regain his footing following the tragic loss of his bass player scotty lafaro in a car accident.

lees, who was good friends to both musicians acted as a go-between in setting up the meeting. "gary was so in awe of bill that he asked me if i would talk to him about doing the album. i asked bill and he said 'sure'". mcfarland was following up his big-band debut for verve and wrote several impressionistic pieces using string quartet, rhythm section, two reeds and his own vibes. phil woods who played clarinet on the session refers to it as "delicate still swung like mad but the textures were just...exquisite is the only word that comes to mind."

for all the delicate beauty of the album, however, the recording session was not without its bumps. evans, who wrestled with drug addiction his whole life was initially a no show. "bill was badly strung out on heroin at the time and would often be late because he was out on the perpetual search for junk." gene lees recalled, "i won't say [gay] was in a panic - he was much too together for that - but he went ahead and rehearsed the orchestra just hoping bill would turn up. bill came to that session with the orchestra already prepared and bill sight read that stuff. it was the most astonishing feat of musicianship you could possibly imagine."

the album is a marvel and the most unjustly neglected in the bill evans canon. the interplay between guitarist jim hall, evans, and mcfarland nestled into the sonic care of such evocative pieces as "reflections in the park" and "a misplaced cowpoke", make it one of jazz's overlooked masterpieces.

phil woods sums up mcfarland's writing. "his ability to use the color of an orchestra without ever studying...he was probably the most naturally gifted writer that i've ever experienced." on bill evans, mcfarland sums it up best in the album's original liner notes. "i built the album around bill - his melodic gift, his harmonic conception, his swell, his magic."

kristian st. clair
seattle 2005

kristian st. clair has just completed "this is gary mcfarland", a feature documentary about the composer's life and work.

. Reproduced with permission.