Monday, May 11, 2009

Lounge Music for Hipsters

It's not easy to peg Gary McFarland's music. At first glance he's an arranger and occasional musician or soloist, but chancing upon his 1969 album on Skye Records (he was a co-founder with Gabor Szabo and Cal Tjader) you get an entirely different view of the artist. This album lands somewhere in between light jazz, lounge music, bossa nova and jazz renditions of pop hits, but even that fails to capture the texture of most of this album. The arrangements call just as much on Smile-era Beach Boys as they do on middle of the road sixties exotica. He dares to take on Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" a challenging tune to cover to say the least. He also taps the recent musical immigrant, Airto Moreira, to solo with the traditional Brazilian percussion instrument, the berimbau, on the tune by the same name. After listing to the album obsessively for the past few months I have come to the realization that this must have been cool-out music for the sophisticated jazz hipsters. This is no Martin Denny, but its still just as passive in that it makes for great background music. But every now and then a particular movement, vocal harmony or percussive breakdown reveals its true complexity.

It's this complexity that is McFarland's lasting legacy. On the surface he didn't appear to be making music that was that different from his peers, but repeat listens reveal a depth of understanding of musical textures, memorable melodies and subtle, yet excellent musicianship. I'm still exploring McFarland's output, but this particular album is a special one for me. There are a number of cool songs here, but the following three selections really stand out. McFarland's story is a tragic and bizarre one as the story goes he was dosed with liquid methadone while drinking with a friend at a New York City bar and died instantly. One can only imagine in which direction he would have taken his music, had he survived. You can check out Doug Payne's excellent tribute here.

Gary McFarland - Because

Gary McFarland - Suzanne

Gary McFarland - Berimbau