Gary McFarland was one of the more significant contributors to orchestral jazz during the 1960s. He had an unfortunately short career. But he was surprisingly productive in the brief decade he was captured on record (1960-70). An "adult prodigy," as Gene Lees once noted, McFarland was an ingenious composer whose music revealed shades of complex emotional subtlety and clever childlike simplicity.
While in the army, he became interested in jazz and attempted to play trumpet, trombone and piano. In 1955 he took up playing the vibes. Displaying a quick ability for interesting writing, he obtained a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music. He spent one semester there in 1959 and with the encouragement of pianist John Lewis, concentrated on large-band arrangements of his own compositions.
He attained early notoriety and success through top-drawer affiliations (Anita O'Day, Bob Brookmeyer), outstanding melodic compositions (for Gerry Mulligan and Johnny Hodges), unique arrangements (his own interpretation of Frank Loesser's Broadway musical "How to Succeed in Business...") and an early devotion and sympathetic understanding of the bossa nova (Stan Getz, Bob Brookmeyer).
McFarland began devoting more attention to his own career and in 1963 released what is often regarded as his most significant recording "“The Gary McFarland Orchestra/Special Guest Soloist: Bill Evans” - a sublime, evocative score that revels in its simplicity. He also started recording in small-group settings which began to feature his own vibes playing (Point of Departure).
In 1964, shortly after staging his own ballet, Reflections in the Park, McFarland issued “Soft Samba,” a set of pop-rock covers featuring some of the earliest jazz covers of popular Beatles tunes. The controversial album featured pleasant samba-like rhythms enhanced by wordless vocals and whistling and minimal improvising. While “Soft Samba” attracted a sizable and appreciative audience, the jazz press and McFarland's early admirers were harshly dismissive. But McFarland experienced his first real hit and a taste of considerable popularity.
The success of Soft Samba allowed McFarland to form his first performing group; featuring fellow Berklee alum Gabor Szabo on guitar as well as recent Berklee graduate Sadao Watanabe, young bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Joe Cocuzzo. The band toured clubs across America during the summer of 1965 and recorded an album similar - but superior - to Soft Samba, called “The In Sound.” Here, McFarland mixed his brand of pop vocalese with the substantial improvisational talents of unique accompanists, most notably Gabor Szabo. The following year found McFarland devoting his talents to the large-scale orchestras which provided his initial notoriety. A February 6, 1966, performance at New York's Lincoln Center yielded the record “Profiles,” which collected New York's finest jazz musicians and soloists - notably, Clark Terry, Bob Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, Phil Woods, Gabor Szabo and Richard Davis. McFarland went on that year to record an album of blatant, Beatlesque pop with Gabor Szabo (Simpatico), a soundtrack for a David Niven film (13, eventually titled Eye of the Devil upon release) and wrote and arranged the highly regarded “The October Suite” for pianist Steve Kuhn, an outstanding set of lyrical and moody tone poems in a chamber jazz setting. He also recorded Zoot Sims in an orchestral setting for the lovely Impulse album “Waiting Game.”