Cult Classic: Gary McParland-Soft Samba.

Composer, arranger, vibraphonist and vocalist Gary McParland was born on October the ’23rd’ 1933, in Los Angeles, but moved to Grants Pass, in Oregon as a fifteen year old. After graduating from high school,Gary McParland headed to college where he became interested in jazz. 

Despite his burgeoning interest in jazz,Gary McParland was content to listen to music, and only started to learn to play an instrument when he joined the army. Gary McParland tried the trumpet, trombone and then the piano, with little success. It was starting to look like Gary McParland wasn’t musically inclined. That was until he discovered the vibes, and Gary McParland knew this was the instrument for him.

Within two years, he had joined a band led by Santiago Gonzales who had spotted the potential in the young vibes player. He encouraged Gary McParland to study music, and he received a scholarship from the Lennox School of Jazz where he encountered the Modern Jazz Quartet’s pianist John Lewis. 

After leaving the Lennox School of Jazz, Gary McParland headed to the prestigious Berklee School of Music. This was the opportunity of a lifetime, but Gary McParland left Berklee after just one semester and moved to New York.

It wasn’t long before the New York based jazzers were taking notice of Gary McParland’s inimitable and distinctive compositions. The Modern Jazz Quartet covered Why Are Blue, Gerry Mulligan recorded Weep and Chuggin’ and Johnny Hodges covered Knuckles. By then, Gary McParland was already regarded a rising star of jazz.

Soon, Gary McParland came to the attention of Creed Taylor, who asked him to arranged All The Sad Young Men for Anita O’Day. It was released on Verve in 1962, and by then, Creed Taylor had signed Gary McParland to Verve Records.

He had recorded his debut album with producer Creed Taylor over a three days period in New York in November 1961. When Gary McParland released his debut album later in 1962, The Jazz Version Of How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, it was to widespread plaudits and praise.

Not long after this, Gary McFarland was asked to write the charts for Stan Getz’s Big Band Bossa Nova. Getting the opportunity to arrange and conduct Stand Getz and his band was showed that Gary McFarland’s stock was rising. The album also left a lasting impression on him.

The following year, 1963, The Gary McFarland Orchestra released their Creed Taylor produced eponymous debut album. It featured a guest appearance by pianist Bill Evans, but it was Gary McFarland whose compositions and vibes playing that attracted the attention of critics. Gary McFarland critics believed had a big future ahead of him.

Gary McFarland then led Orchestra USA on their 1963 album Debut, and in 1964 the Gary McFarland Sextet released Point Of Departure on the Impulse label. This bop-oriented album was produced by Bob Thiele and was released to the same critical acclaim as previous albums.

Buoyed by the success of Point Of Departure, Gary McFarland released  Reflections In The Park and the critically acclaimed Essence in 1965. However, Gary McFarland’s next album was very different to everything he had released up until then.

Soft Samba.

This was Soft Samba, where Gary McFarland decided to give twelve familiar songs a makeover by combining Latin rhythms and vocalese. It was a stylistic departure from Gary McFarland’s previous albums, but was one with commercial potential.

Especially with covers of Lennon and McCartney’s She Loves You, A Hard Day’s Night, And I Love Her and I Want To Hold Your Hand. They were joined by Linda Laurie and Jerry Mack’s Ringo, Won’t You Marry Me, Lionel Bart’s From Russia With Love, Sashsa Distel and Jack Reardon’s The Good Life, More (Theme from Mondo Cane), Percy Faith and Mack David’s The Love Goddess, Johnny Mandel and Johnny Mercer’s Emily. The other two tracks Gary McFarland chose for Soft Samba. were California, Here I Come and La Vie En Rose. Now he had to reinvent these tracks 

Gary McFarland headed to the Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey in 1964 with producer Creed Taylor. They were joined by a talented  band that featured ten top musicians. Among them, were pianist Antônio Carlos Jobim, guitarist Kenny Burrell and percussionist Willie Bobo who helped Gary McFarland give twelve familiar tracks and gave them a Latin twist. 

When Soft Samba was released in March 1965, jazz critics were shocked by how different the music on the album was. It featured Latin rhythms and vocalese on what was critics saw as an album of pop covers. This wasn’t jazz the critics cried. For goodness sake, Gary McFarland even whistles on Soft Samba was the response from shocked and disappointed critics. They were in the minority.

Other critics were won over by this irresistible musical cocktail, where Gary McFarland and his band took familiar songs in a new direction and reinvented them. There was even a nod to Stan Getz, on what was a captivating fusion of melodic feelgood music. A key ingredient was the Bossa Nova, which was provided by its founding father Antônio Carlos Jobim. The Latin rhythms, with their Soft Samba sound were combined with pop and a hint of jazz. All this was combined by Gary McFarland. His elegant, individual approach to the vibes plays an important roll, and sometimes the jazzer turns crooner as he hums and scats: “ba-ba, baya-baya, byu-byu.” 

Meanwhile, there’s highlights aplenty on Soft Samba, including And I Love Her, From Russia With Love, The Good Life, The Love Goddess, Emily and the album closer La Vie En Rose. Across LA, Soft Samba was providing the soundtrack to the smartest parties, and elsewhere, bachelors mixed cocktails in the post modern flats as the album played in the background. Soft Samba which was an album that didn’t take itself too seriously, and was part of the soundtrack to 1965.

Ironically, and despite jazz critics and purists loathing Soft Samba, it was nominated for the Grammy Award For The Best Jazz Performance. Alas, it lost out to Ramsey Lewis’ The In Crowd. However,  Gary McFarland had been vindicated and was set to do it all again on the followup The In Sound.

The In Sound.

After the relative success of Soft Samba, Gary McFarland decided to record the sequel, The In Sound. It found the Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction feature on album that consisted of old songs, new songs and familiar songs.

For The In Crowd, which featured just ten tracks, Gary McFarland penned The Hills of Verdugo, Over Easy, Fried Bananas and Wine and Bread. They were joined by Piero Piccioni’s The Moment of Truth, Frank Loesser’s Bloop Blee and Nino Oliviero, Bruno Nicolai and Alan Brandt’s The Sting Of The Bee. While many people may not have been familiar with some if these tracks mist  Bacharach and David’s Here I Am which was joined by Cole Porter’s I Concentrate on You and Jagger and Richards’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.

Once again, Gary McFarland headed to the Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey  with producer Creed Taylor and between the ‘2nd’ and ‘3rd’ August 1965 The In Sound with another talented band. It featured guitarists Gábor Szabó and Kenny Burrell, percussionist Willie Rodriguez, double bassist Richard Davis and Candido on bongos and congos. Over a two-day period,Gary McFarland and his band which featured twelve other musicians recorded the ten tracks that became The In Crowd.

With The In Crowd due to be released later in 1965, Verve’s PR department got behind the album which was promoted heavily. Even some of the critics that had slated Soft Samba, gave The In Crowd grudging praise. Other critics were won over by the album, and felt that it surpassed Soft Samba.

It seemed that Gary McFarland had settled into this new style, as he led his band during his four original songs and six cover versions, which they took in a new direction and reinvented. Among the highlights of The In Crowd were The Moment of Truth, The Sting of the Bee, Here I Am, I Concentrate and the album closer (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. These tracks and the rest of The In Crowd were melodic and tinged with humour, as The In Crowd was another album that didn’t take itself too seriously. 

The In Crowd was melodic, feelgood music where once again, Gary McFarland combined Latin rhythms and his unique vocalese. Just like its predecessor, The In Crowd was a fusion of Bossa Nova, soft samba, easy listening, pop and jazz. It seemed that Gary McFarland had settled into his new style and was embracing it on what was a memorable, melodic, kitsch and ironic album that didn’t take itself seriously, and was an addition to pop art culture.

When The In Crowd was released, Gary McFarland’s new album wasn’t a huge success, but found enough of audience that he decided to repeat the experiment in 1967 with The Samba Strings. However, by then, Gary McFarland was back recording music that won the approval of the critics…jazz.

It was jazz music that led to Gary McFarland being called: “the most gifted arranger since Duke Ellington.”  He was a versatile arranger who created inventive and melodic music by an arranger, composer and musician who could’ve become one of the greats. 

Sadly, Gary McFarland never got the chance to show his full potential. Just five years after the release of The In Crowd, Gary McFarland died under what were mysterious circumstances  to the say the least. He had spent the evening in 55 Bar, inNew York City on the ‘2nd’ of November 1971, and one of the drinks that Gary McFarland consumed had been spiked. A post-mortem revealed that he had consumed a poisoned drink which proved fatal, and robbed music of a great talent.

Two reminders of Gary McFarland’s potential and talent are Soft Samba and his cult classic The In Sound. It finds him fusing Latin rhythms and vocalese during his pop-jazz period which is regarded as Gary McFarland’s finest hour. The In Crowd is a reminder of an arranger, composer and musician who could and should’ve gone on to become one of greats but sadly, died in tragic circumstances and never got the opportunity to fulfil his potential 

Cult Classic: Gary McParland-Soft Samba.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: