Like fellow arranger/composer David Axelrod, Gary McFarland remained a neglected and misunderstood figure in jazz until his recent rediscovery by crate-digging hip-hop enthusiasts in their never-ending quest for more sampler fodder. Odd as that may seem, Wish Me Well makes it clear that McFarland still has quite a following amongst old-school jazz artists such as former colleague/running buddy Steve Kuhn, and the brilliant and iconoclastic arranger/composer Mark Masters. Using a group of top-drawer studio and jazz musicians, Masters has crafted a tribute that should bring yet more listeners back to check out McFarland’s work.
From Grant’s Pass, Oregon (also the birthplace of Ralph Towner), McFarland streaked into the jazz firmament like a loopy, carefree comet. A self-taught vibraphonist who had failed in earlier attempts to learn trumpet, trombone, and piano, he was unaware of his innate composing and arranging skills until he tried to show a tune he had worked out on the vibes to flutist Santiago Gonzalez. After confessing to the bandleader that he did not know how to write the tune out, Gonzalez remarked that McFarland was "an idiot" if he didn’t apply himself and learn to write music.
Five years later, McFarland was arranging for Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band, had a recording contract with Verve, and was being hailed as a musical genius by critics and fans alike. A few years later, the hosannas quieted as McFarland became increasingly involved in non-jazz music projects (the terrific Wendy and Bonnie LP, for one.) His attmepts at singing, and his penchant for reworking trendy pop tunes were widely ridiculed. Even so, his ongoing collaboration with pianist Steve Kuhn brought forth a great deal of truly sublime music. McFarland died tragically and mysteriously at age 38, the result of ingesting a cocktail laced with methadone.
In creating Wish Me Well, Masters took on the task of overhauling McFarland’s compositions and arrangements for his own brass-heavy band. This is no mean feat, as McFarland typically used small groupings of strings and flutes and tended towards gossamer-light textures. Bringing Steve Kuhn and Gary Smulyan in as featured soloists was a stroke of genius. Kuhn’s solo on "Tree Tops," the opening track, is simply breathtaking - for my money one of the year’s musical highlights. Kuhn’s playing elsewhere is similarly elegant and inspired - as on the opening to "Gary’s Waltz." Smulyan, who appeared in an earlier Masters-led McFarland tribute concert, contributes blazing solos on almost every track.
Many who know McFarland’s music will be surprised at the brusque, broad, and intensely swinging nature of Masters’ interpretations. This is especially true of the pieces originally written for Mulligan’s band ("Weep," "Kitch," and "Chuggin"), where the influence of Ellington and Basie are writ large. The same could be said of "Why Are You Blue?," a slinky, low-down blues that is perhaps McFarland’s most popular tune. McFarland’s dreamy, introspective side is represented by the aforementioned "Tree Tops" and "Gary’s Waltz," as well as "Summer Day." The melancholic and wistful title track is lovingly played by the trio of Kuhn, LaBarbera, and Oles. Masters’ reworkings of McFarland’s more complex pieces - "Tree Patterns" (from the LP McFarland recorded with Bill Evans,) "Monk’s Sphere," and "I Love To Say Her Name" - are witty, playful, and somewhat reminiscent of Carla Bley’s more ambitious big band endeavors.Wish Me Well is one of those rare tribute CDs that successfully captures the essence of its subject and functions as a definitive artistic statement by the musicians who created it. This is a ‘must-have’ disc, and a superb work of art from one of America’s finest jazz ensembles.