The In Sound & Soft Samba (2018)
Gary McFarland

Two of the best Verve albums from the cult composer and producer. The mix of Latin rhythms, vocalese and Beatles and Stones covers shocked jazz purists at the time.

Gary McFarland was a breath of fresh air that took the jazz world by storm in the early 60s. Hailed as “the most gifted arranger since Duke Ellington” by the New Yorker and lauded for his “great versatility and melodic invention” by the legendary Leonard Feather. And yet, the 20-something McFarland had only recently learned to read music and hadn’t even played an instrument until a few years before.

Who was this guy?

GARY RONALD McFARLAND was born on 2 October 1933, in Los Angeles and only became interested in jazz while in college. He moved to Grants Pass, Oregon, when he was 15 and only became interested in jazz while in college. During a stint in the Army, he attempted to play trumpet, trombone and piano before settling on vibes in 1955. Two years later he joined a group led by Santiago Gonzalez and displayed a knack for melodic writing. Gonzalez encouraged him to study music and he obtained scholarships to the Lenox School of Jazz, where he met the Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis, and the Berklee School of Music. After only one semester at Berklee, he set off for New York where he immediately made a big splash, getting his unique compositions covered by the Modern Jazz Quartet (“Why Are You Blue”), Gerry Mulligan (“Weep” and “Chuggin”) and Johnny Hodges (“Knuckles” and “Blue Hodge”, the latter perhaps McFarland’s most covered tune).

All of this caught the attention of producer Creed Taylor, who offered him the opportunity to arrange Anita O’Day’s “All The Sad Young Men” (Verve/1962) and record his own “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” (Verve/1962). McFarland’s take on the Frank Loesser musical won many positive notices and led him to helming the charts for Stan Getz’s “Big Band Bossa Nova” (Verve/1963), a popular hit which remains among McFarland’s greatest artistic achievements. “Big Band Bossa Nova” is also considered one of the best records to come out of the bossa craze of the early 60s. McFarland went on to higher ground with “The Gary McFarland Orchestra – Special Guest Soloist: Bill Evans” (Verve/1963), Orchestra USA’s “Debut” (Colpix/1963), the McFarland Sextet’s “Point Of Departure” (Impulse/1964), “Reflections In The Park” (1964) and John Lewis’ programme of McFarland originals, “Essence” (Atlantic/1965, although recorded several years earlier).

Then came “Soft Samba.”

And then “The In Sound”. These records knocked the wind out of those who breathlessly praised Gary McFarland’s work before. Humming? Whistling? Pop tunes? Where’s the jazz? But it was Gary doing what he did best: “blending rural glee and urban guile”, as the Saturday Review had put it. While he offended many in jazz circles with these albums, he was sincere about his intent. “Gary is utterly serious about his music”, wrote Willis Conover. “Not solemn – listen to the music – but creatively stubborn.”1 What some listeners at the time did not recognise – or care for – was that McFarland created something new and, ultimately, these two albums wound up representing the birth of the fusion of jazz with rock’n’roll – a feat often credited to others in later years.

If this collection does not represent the most critically celebrated of McFarland’s work (read: jazz), then it certainly contains some of the finest and most pleasurable listening Gary Mac ever waxed (read: Gary’s bag). Here, McFarland is at his most relaxed and witty, most casual and easy going and surely his most humorous – all traits said to describe the man himself. This is not stuffy jazz; the evidence suggests he’d had enough of that sort of thing anyway. McFarland clearly loves this music and doesn’t have to work very hard convincing us to join in on the fun.

“A pair of stretch socks, two ounces of sherry and a ‘Soft Samba’ are offered as premiums. But Gary McFarland’s treatment of motion picture themes on the on the vibes would curry public favour without the promotion incentives. The artist’s humming helps, too.”2

“Soft Samba”, McFarland’s third of six Verve albums, was recorded over several sessions between June and October 1964 and issued in February 1965 to rather mixed acclaim. It was nothing like the previous jazz-swings-Broadway of “How To Succeed In Business” or the jazz-soloist-with-orchestra of “The Gary McFarland Orchestra”. “The jazz business is confining”, McFarland said shortly before this album’s release. “And since I’ve found other areas of music are as interesting there is no reason why I should shut myself off from them.”3 Although respected in some quarters, McFarland demanded now to be heard. “I decided I could make an album that would be received by a much wider audience. I wanted to do something in a popular bossa nova groove, and I had the idea of humming as well as playing.”4

For “Soft Samba”, McFarland fashions a delightfully playful programme, stitching requisite yet unusually well-chosen movie themes and signature songs for Lorne Green (‘Ringo’), Edith Piaf (‘La Vie En Rose’) and Al Jolson (‘California, Here I Come’), together with a healthy dose of Beatles tunes. Not a McFarland original in sight – although several terrific originals from the sessions remain unissued, two of these tracks (“Tough Night” and “Blue Town”) can briefly be heard on director Kristian St. Clair’s 2006 documentary film “This Is Gary McFarland”.

For the sessions, producer Creed Taylor – whose familiar signature is strangely missing from the original LP’s inner sleeve – astutely assembled several small groups of veteran Verve session players, including flautists Selden Powell and Spencer Sinatra, trombonist Jimmy Cleveland and bassist Richard Davis. Also highlighting the recordings were such contract headliners as guitarist Kenny Burrell and percussionist Willie Bobo.

The key ingredient to the album’s allure, however, is the addition of the founding father of bossa nova himself, Antonio Carlos Jobim. (At the time of the “Soft Samba” sessions, McFarland and Jobim also recorded an obscure single for Prestige: “The Dreamer” b/w/ “Rivergirl”. Both songs were later included on the 2008 El! CD compilation “Sketch For Summer”.) McFarland had previously arranged Stan Getz’s “Big Band Bossa Nova”, long considered one of the finest examples of bossa nova ever recorded. But it is Jobim’s presence here that lends these warm pop confections the authentic “soft samba” that makes it a success.

Looking back, it must seem that it was something of a formula for jazz records of the day. But Gary McFarland was one of the earliest to acknowledge the Beatles’ compositional talents and the music’s ability to transcend its Top 40 trendiness. Subsequently, McFarland was one of the first in jazz to cover the Fab Four’s music, something that became de rigueur in jazz following the success of “Soft Samba” – to the chagrin of many a jazz player and, most especially, jazz critics. “In my opinion”, said McFarland of the Beatles, with whom he’d hoped to work one day but never did, “they’re five-star, excellent songwriters.”5

Of course, jazz critics and purists hated it. Down Beat gave it one star and called it “cheap and trivial… musical self-pollution”, while Melody Maker said it was “the least memorable album” of the year. Perhaps one of the nicest – and most spot-on – notices McFarland ever received came from the most surprising and least likely of places, the all-American pages of the Boy Scouts magazine, Boys’ Life: “You’d think the artist on this album couldn’t talk because instead of words all you hear is ‘Ba-ba, baya-baya, byu-byu’, and so on with little relief. The results are unique (as you’d expect) but pleasing. It’s Gary McFarland’s SOFT SAMBA. Lots of guitar, flute and vibraphone sounds team up so that after an intro of ‘Ringo’, ‘She Loves You’ and ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ where have you heard them?) you’re really swaying. We found the wedding of the soft samba to rock’n’roll a joyous union, thanks to the musical ministry of Mr. McFarland.”6

The Beatles’ 1964 hit “And I Love Her” was chosen as the album’s single, but it never charted. (The tune was also generously sampled by the Japanese hip-hop group ShinSight for their 2006 song “Passin’ By”.) McFarland, however, revisited the song on vocalist Grady Tate’s debut album “Windmills Of My Mind” (Skye/1968), with a magnificent and strikingly different arrangement for horns and strings. “Soft Samba” also includes a nicely bossa-fied take of Riz Ortolani’s “More”, which was a 1963 hit for McFarland’s labelmate Kai Winding, and also featured “Soft Samba”’s Kenny Burrell on guitar.

“Soft Samba” was nominated for a 1966 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance, losing out to Ramsey Lewis’s hit “The In Crowd”. But its success enabled McFarland to form his first working group featuring Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo, Japanese reedman Sadao Watanabe, Puerto Rican-born bassist Eddie Gomez and Bostonian drummer Joe Cocuzzo.

The combo spent the summer of 1965 on the nightclub circuit – and an appearance on The Tonight Show – playing to mostly good notices and appreciative (although not very large) audiences. Performances in Seattle were caught on the “Jazz At The Penthouse” CD, included as a bonus on the “This Is Gary McFarland” DVD, where McFarland’s quintet cooks on an electrifying take of “A Hard Day’s Night”. Some have suggested “Soft Samba” had a great influence on rock groups such as the Free Design, Love and others that became known as part of the Sunshine Pop movement. And indeed, after the album seemed to give rise to similarly inclined ruminations from the Beach Boys and Nilsson, Verve reissued “Soft Samba” as the trippy “Sympathetic Vibrations” in 1969. Later, such groups as Air, Ursula 1000, Stereolab and others in the mighty downtempo or trip hop movement capitalized on what Gary McFarland had laid down on “Soft Samba” all those years before.

“Gary McFarland knows that musicianship has to be broadened to include humour and an awareness of the current mood to develop listener rapport. He does just that in this outstanding package that features some highly original and attractive material as well as a number of key sidemen who known [sic] what he’s trying to say and help him say it”.7

McFarland was forced to get defensive about” Soft Samba”. “Strange”, he said. “Naturally, I’d have felt more excited if it were, say, the one with Bill Evans that had clicked. But it’s silly to try to compare this LP with the others. I like variety. In fact, I never had more fun on a project than I did recording ‘Soft Samba’.” So, when he headed back to the studios for a sequel, he attempted to please everyone. This, of course, was doomed to fail. But he wound up waxing one of the best records of his career.

“The In Sound” was recorded over two days in early August 1965 and released just in time for Christmas of that year. The album upped the jazz ante a bit and veers away from the samba stylings of the previous record to the more Latin mood of his compelling collaboration with organist Shirley Scott on their vastly underrated “Latin Shadows” [(recorded only a week and a half before). McFarland had become increasingly attracted to Latin music during this time. “I get very hung up on Latin-type music”, he stated. “I can notice how Latin music has influenced my approach to arrangements.”8 Its greatest appeal to McFarland was Latin’s harmonic and rhythmic richness and, most especially, its attractive simplicity. Here, McFarland crafts a tremendous and remarkably cohesive programme consisting of four of his finest originals, three unusual movie themes (“The Moment Of Truth” and “The Sting Of The Bee” from the Mondo film “Go Go Go World”, and “Here I Am” from “What’s New Pussycat”), a standard (Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate On You), an obscure novelty song (“Bloop Bleep”, a 1947 MGM single by Frank Loesser of “How To Succeed In Business” fame) and the 1965 Rolling Stones hit “(I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”. No Beatles here to bash. “Anna”, an additional song from these sessions, remained unreleased for many years. Originally known as “El Negro Zumbari” from the 1951 film “Anna”, “Anna” was a 1953 MGM in-name-only hit for the film’s star, Silvana Mangano, who lip-syncs the tune on screen. Many others covered the little-remembered song over the years but McFarland’s “Anna” was later heard on the 1998 compilation “Latin Lounge”.

The line-up here includes Spencer Sinatra, Kenny Burrell and Richard Davis – all returning from the earlier date – aided by Gabor Szabo and Sadao Watanabe from the McFarland quintet. Notable additions to “The In Sound” include trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, who previously worked with McFarland on the 1962 album “Trombone Jazz Samba”, bassist Bob Bushnell, drummer Grady Tate and a percussion trio of Candido, Willy Rodriguez and Joe Venuto.

While there is no doubt this is Gary McFarland’s record, a good deal of solo space – and indeed much of the album’s dominant sound – is given over to Gabor Szabo. It turns out to be the best of their several collaborations on record, as well as a showcase for one of the guitarist’s best-ever recorded performances. Although, to be fair, Bob Brookmeyer takes a number of beautifully notable features. Quite simply, “The In Sound” represents some of the best music Gary McFarland ever recorded: jazz, pop or otherwise. As before, even the covers sound like Gary McFarland tunes, so successfully does he make them his own – most especially on “The Moment Of Truth” and “The Sting Of The Bee”. They have that unusual melodic clarity McFarland always possessed and, after only these two albums, a unique musical signature; something most listeners either loved or loathed.

McFarland’s “Fried Bananas” was chosen as the album’s single, yet it failed to elicit much radio airplay. Like the better-known “Flea Market”, it’s derived from music McFarland wrote for a TV commercial. The song was also covered by Cal Tjader, Benny Golson and, later on, by Sadao Watanabe. Even the ironic “Wine And Bread” (although the lyrics read as “bread and wine”, curiously the title was transposed on both the single and LP) humorously foreshadows the musical stance McFarland would take rather more seriously on the later “America The Beautiful” (Skye/1969).

For the album’s cover, songwriter Margo Guryan – a frequent collaborator of McFarland’s who at the time was married to trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and worked as secretary to producer Creed Taylor – suggested a painting she purchased, Fried Egg On A Polka Dot Tablecloth, by her cousin, pop artist Peter Shulman. Taylor liked it but chose to whiten the background for some reason. It is the most striking cover in McFarland’s discography but Guryan was dismayed by the album’s title, when song titles like ‘Wine And Bread’, ‘Fried Bananas’ and especially ‘Over Easy’ seemed to suit the image so much better. The image was later adapted to accompany the 1999 Stereolab 7-inch EP, also called “The In Sound”.

It’s fair to say that not many knew what to make of “The In Sound”. A trade ad for the record in Playboy magazine surreally proclaimed: “Newer than Camp, so in it might even be out, that’s ‘The In Sound’ and Gary McFarland’ But listen deep…” Even the men’s market – to whom the record was presumably being pitched – gave it a miss. The jazz critics were miffed too. Damning with faint praise, Down Beat gave the album three stars, saying “It’s an interesting tightrope McFarland walks, but it does not seem likely he can keep pleasing both factions of his audience for long.” Leroy Robinson in Jazz magazine claimed the Rolling Stones song heard here described his feelings for the record and even went so fat to say that he found McFarland “lacking in real roots for jazz immortality.”

One presumes “The In Sound” was intended as a musical piece of pop art, celebrating the commercial aspects of pop culture in ironic and kitschy ways. That no-one got it suggests what audiences really heard – if they heard this record at all – was “the in sound” of elevators or music to soothe patients in a doctor’s office. The record’s failure did nothing to deter him. Hereafter, McFarland’s recordings – his own and those he arranged or produced – rarely strayed far from the pop-jazz he originated with “Soft Samba” and “The In Sound”. Notable exceptions, however, include the all-star jazz concert “Profiles” (Impulse/1966), a stirring chamber-jazz collaboration with pianist Steve Kuhn, “The October Suite” (Impulse/1967), the melancholy moodiness of the orchestral “Soft Samba Strings” (Verve/1967) and McFarland’s aforementioned magnum opus “America The Beautiful”.

Digging his pop heels in deep, McFarland set about crafting Gabor Szabo’s solo debut “Gypsy ‘66” (Impulse/1966) several months later in much the same manner, as well as his own “Tijuana Jazz” (Impulse/1966 – with Clark Terry), “Simpatico” (Impulse/1966 – again with Szabo), “Does The Sun Really Shine On The Moon” (Skye/1968) and “Today” (Skye/1970 – featuring some of the best Beatles covers ever heard in jazz). He really only bettered his “Soft Samba” / “The In Sound” concept with a superb set of opo-jazz originals, “Scorpio And Other Signs” (1968), his sixth and final Verve album.  

McFarland went on to co-found the Skye Records label in 1968 with guitarist Gabor Szabo and fellow vibist Cal Tjader (an early supporter) and nearly single-handedly crafted a couple of dozen records for himself and others that plied his own brand of pop-jazz. Perhaps the catalogue’s highlight in this realm is McFarland’s sublime collaboration with Cal Tjader on 1968’s “Solar Heat”. Unfortunately, Skye never achieved one of the many hits it deserved – despite a catalogue loaded with plenty of worthy contenders – and by 1970 it was pretty much defunct. By 1971, McFarland defected from jazz entirely in a transfixing collaboration with singer/lyricist Peter Smith for the pure pop elegance of “Butterscotch Rum”, indicating the direction he probably would have continued heading toward had he lived longer.

Gary McFarland died under mysterious circumstances in New York City on 2 November 1971, after ingesting a poisoned drink at the city’s 55 Bar. To this day, no-one knows – or will say – what happened on that terrible day. But it was a loss that was felt deeply by his family (Gary’s son Milo died at the same age, just 38, in 2002, while daughter Kerry continues to promote her father’s legacy to this day) and so many of us hoping to hear more from Gary McFarland.

While Gary McFarland’s music has lately found due recognition in album-length tributes by the Mark Masters Ensemble (featuring former McFarland ally Steve Kuhn) and the Gary McFarland Legacy Ensemble, led by drummer Michael Benedict (who was married to McFarland’s widow, Gail, who herself died in 2007), little of the impressive body of work he created during his pop-jazz phase has found favour outside of these masterful original recordings.

Whatever you call it, it’s infectious and memorable music and it all started with these two innovative and breathtakingly beautiful albums.

Douglas Payne / 2018

Jazz critic and historian Douglas Payne has created and maintained the Gary McFarland archive at dougpayne.com and also contributed to the documentary film This Is Gary McFarland.

  1. “What Makes Gary Run,” Jazz, May 1965, p. 9. ↩︎
  2. Soft Samba review Billboard, 20 February 1965, p. 64. ↩︎
  3. “McFarland is Moving into The Field of Diversification,” Billboard, 5 December 1964, p/ 20. ↩︎
  4. “How to Succeed with A Soft Samba,” Melody Maker, 19 June 1965, p. 6. ↩︎
  5. “Confessions of a Non-Purist,” Down Beat, 21 September 1967, p. 22. ↩︎
  6. Soft Samba review, Boys’ Life, September 1965, p.  16. ↩︎
  7. The In Sound review, Billboard, 4 December 1965, p. 34. ↩︎
  8. “Gary McFarland: Theme and Variations,” Down Beat, 24 February 1966, p. 25 ↩︎