Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Madonna - The Immaculate Collection 2

Compilation (single artist)

Madonna's 1990 The Immaculate Collection could be the single most consistent greatest hits album ever released. Munificent in its charms and absolutely preternatural in its appeal, there is not a single wasted note to be found amongst its 17 tracks. Its songs flow flawlessly from one to the next, showcasing a young woman in absolute control of her abilities, focused on delivering nothing less than one absolute dance-floor classic after the next. Never one to be satisfied or rest upon her laurels, Madonna continues to push and innovate, and The Immaculate Collection captured her at the peak of her powers: confident, aware and hungry for success.

Yet for some reason none of this seems to sit well with a certain subset of rock-centric dads whose heads collectively exploded in 2008 when Madonna was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. To hear it said, one would think Madonna Louise Ciccone was nothing less than a pox unleashed upon the planet to destroy "real music", such as REO Speedwagon, Foreigner or Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band.

And yet that wasn't the worst of it. Clearly not over the awkward and uncomfortable feelings they first experienced during their initial exposure to the "Like a Virgin" video in 1984, said clueless suburban males have gone well beyond their standard denigration of Jann Wenner and the RNRHOF that occurs whenever the rock hall inducts a woman or artist of color not named Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix.

No, Madonna clearly triggers some emotions that are well deep-seated, nay buried, internally in these fellows. Perhaps it was the fact that she "flaunted" her sexuality (i.e. didn't attempt to camouflage the fact that she was a sexual being) so brazenly, or that she once dated a real live Mexican (named Jellybean, for God's sake!) that so upsets them, but clearly it must have more to do with the style of music she deals in. Call it dance pop, synth pop or freestyle, rock it clearly isn't, which is why the same usual suspects lambasting Madonna as a slut, whore or skank have nothing but admiration and puppy love for Grace Slick, a woman who freely admits to sleeping with all the other original members of the Jefferson Airplane.

Look at this terrible person.

Anyway, lest you think that I'm coming from some sort of anti-rock, anti-old guy perspective, I should point out that I'm very much pro-rock, I currently play in two rock bands and am pushing 40 myself. And as much as I can't stand to listen to old white guys with daddy/ daughter issues slag incredibly talented performers like Madonna due to whatever repressed bullshit they're carrying around with them, I get equally annoyed with Millennials and Gen-Xers who go around trolling classic rock/ pop message boards by chastising their betters for not listening to whatever trendy indie garbage is popular this week. Made-up, contrived phrases such as "rockist" and "dad rock" make me want to grab the nearest hipster and punch him repeatedly.

To wit, there is a large subset of the under-40 crowd who think snark is an adequate replacement for actual humor, and unfortunately they are skilled at using the internet and seem to be taking over most online music communities, even the ones geared towards boomer music. These assholes need to be... well, not lined up and shot, exactly... but at least have their internet taken away until they are capable of posting something with some degree of insight behind it, rather than believing in their own special snowflake-ness to such a degree that they actually think they are markedly smarter than their progenitors.

Oh yeah, well now that I've offended practically everybody, this was about Madonna, wasn't it? Well, I'll just leave it at this: If you hate her, nothing I'm going to say can change your mind. If you have some actual thought-out arguments about her music, I'm inclined to disagree but I can see where you might be coming from. Her studio albums tend to have some filler cuts, no mystery there. While some might argue her lyrics can be prurient and purile, I would argue back that their actually more louche and ludic-- in other words geared towards fun and playfulness rather than hitting you over the head with obvious stupidity in the manner of many of her followers.

The Immaculate Collection 2 focuses on the same era as its precursor, covering Madge's first decade-- from her 1982 debut single "Everybody" to 1992's lush "This Used to Be My Playground". In between you've got your old school club bangers, your pop gems and some first class ballads. If you like Madonna I don't see how you can go wrong, but let us know what you think: The Immaculate Collection 2

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Grateful Dead - A Box of Rain (8-CD)

Compilation (single artist)

Ah, the Good ol' Grateful Dead. Love 'em or hate 'em, no one can deny that they were a true American institution and one of the most influential acts of their era. I could write at length about their significance to me, both growing up and today, but that's a topic for another article. For now, I'd like to stick to the concept I've been covering recently, which is box set retrospectives.

For a band of the Dead's magnitude, it's pretty hard to believe that something like this has never been made available commercially. The closest thing in their catalog is the 1999 So Many Roads set which, though good as it is, is comprised entirely of rare live material and studio outtakes. It's an important collection to own if you're already a fan, but one which generally overlooks the group's existent output, which means it's not a place to start if you're just getting into the band or if you want something a little more definitive.

As such, we've attempted to compile the first true career-spanning retrospective for the Grateful Dead-- one which reaches from their earliest days as the Warlocks through their 2003/04 post-Jerry reunion efforts when they were known as just the Dead. Through it all, attention was focused on presenting a multifaceted view of exactly what made the group so special. All the different styles and eras are well represented, with particular emphasis on the band's early-mid 70's heyday.

Since so much of the Grateful Dead story was told through their live shows, the plan was to weave both live and studio tracks into a seamlessly sequenced tour through their back catalog. Sets such as these can only really work if sequenced properly, and so every effort has been made to ensure that all transitions and/ or segues between tracks work flawlessly for the listener.

Against our standard operating procedure here, we've gone ahead and put together a full track listing .PDF so the more learned Deadheads amongst you can scope out recording dates for every track. All live sources are high quality complete soundboards, with studio tracks listed as such. We very much hope that this set will provide you with a clutch of go-to CDs for the car, or perhaps shine some new light on some old favorites by placing them in a new context.

As for those of you who aren't fully initiated yet, don't fear. If, like me, your initial point of entry into the Grateful Dead came via old warhorse compilations like Skeletons from the Closet, What a Long Strange Trip It's Been or The Arista Years, you'll hear all your old favorites here surrounded by plenty of other great stuff you may not be familiar with yet. Try it out one disc at a time and see if you don't become addicted.

Anyway, without any further ado, please enjoy and don't forget to be grateful!

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Box Set Dilemma Part 2: Thinking Outside the Box

One of the first CD box sets, Led Zeppelin offered sub-par remastering and little in the way of bonus material. 

As I first discussed in my previous entry, the retrospective CD box set has the potential to either be of great benefit to an artist's catalog, or a gigantic waste of time and effort. Here I'd like to explore some of many variables that separate the winners from the losers...

Back catalog: Webster's defines the word "retrospective" as an exhibition or compilation showing the development of the work of a particular artist over a period of time.  If the set's executive producer were to always keep this definition in mind, it would surely help to keep a lot of the problems plaguing CD box sets from ever manifesting themselves in the first place. Let's parse through this, shall we?

Firstly, the word "exhibition" is used in the definition. In other words, we are selecting certain pieces out of an artist's entire body of work to exhibit on display. Include everything an artist ever released and you no longer have a retrospective, but rather a catalog dump.

A box set containing all of the artist's previously released work is of use to neither fan nor neophyte-- the fan already owns this stuff, and the novice isn't going to pay the price of admission, so long as the original releases are still available individually for purchase.

The second key word in the definition is "development". In other words, if we're talking about an artist that hasn't displayed much in the way of noticeable artistic progression throughout their career, then the box set retrospective is not the right way to showcase their work. In cases such as this, sticking with the one or two disc Greatest Hits or Best Of format makes more sense. (Examples I can think of offhand: Gary Lewis & The Playboys, The Cranberries, LL Cool J, Garbage, etc.)

Though they only released three CDs during their existence, A Perfect Circle still put out a limited edition box set.

Finally, the definition mentions "over a period of time". Therefore, is it valid to release a box set retrospective covering just a certain portion of an artist's career? Absolutely! So long as the compilers agree to adhere to the previous parts of this definition, then focusing on a prime era of an artist's career can certainly still be considered a retrospective. If a certain portion of your creative output is roughly on par with Picasso's "Blue" period, then go right ahead. I won't try to stop you!

With all this in mind, the main challenge of the set's executive producer is to tell the story they're trying to convey in the ideal amount of time, while still taking into account the limitations of physical CD storage. 320 minutes (80 minutes x 4 discs) used to be considered the industry standard, but within the last decade or so, box sets have ballooned and now often comprise as many CDs or DVDs as the compilers see fit to include. (For example, the Grateful Dead's Europe '72: The Complete Recordings contains over 60 CDs!)

Whatever your practical limitations, it is still very important to keep in mind that you are curating an exhibit. So generally speaking, you should avoid the temptation for overkill. Include too many highlights, and you'll remove any temptation for neophytes to explore your artist's back catalog.

Unreleased/ hard-to-find music: Ideally yes, include some, so long as it presents extra value to the dedicated fan. However do make sure that the rare material you're including is not so rough or poor that it sounds noticeably inferior when showcased amongst the musical highlights that otherwise comprise your retrospective.

If you must include some weaker rare material, try to put it on its own "bonus" disc... But even then, that material shouldn't be so awful that it draws attention away from the rest of the artist's canon that remains the primary reason for your set's existence

AC/DC's Box Set offered all of the group's releases with no added bonus material at a list price of $400. Buying the  17 CDs separately would cost the average consumer around $200. So why does this set exist exactly?!

Flow: Perhaps equally important as proper track selection is the overall flow of the mix. Although a lot of executive producers may choose to stick with an exact chronological order (either in terms of recording date or release date) when deciding what order to present tracks on a set, one should not feel handcuffed from doing a bit of creative maneuvering if two songs simply do not sound right when buttressed against one another. (Ideally there will be some kind of booklet or other documentation included with the set that will list all the necessary dates for each song, making strict adherence to chronology inessential.)

However, please note that retrospective sets are generally better off sticking with at least a loose chronology when it comes to a playlist order, whereas one or two disc Best Of or Greatest Hits comps are usually not bound by any such restrictions.

How I roll...

Audio fidelity/  remixing/  mastering:   Generally speaking, this isn't really as hard to get right as it may seem at first. With rare exceptions, your best bet as an engineer is to simply go back to the original master tapes and perform a flat transfer to 24/96 or higher digital. If the source material was recorded digitally to begin with, then simply do nothing except utilize the existing master. If the original master cannot be located, or if this is a DIY effort, your goal is then to then locate the best sounding, highest generation copy available. The music forum over at Steve Hoffman's board is your best friend here in most cases. (Pro Tip: Familiarize yourself with the search function and don't be afraid to ask questions if you don't find what you're looking for initially.)

When dealing with classic artists who recorded much of their music in the 1960s, the temptation exists to go back and remix tracks that were originally released only in mono. Now this is a process that I am highly opposed to, in the same manner that I wouldn't prefer to see prints of Georgia O'Keefe's work that have been digitally color corrected verses the real deal. However, if you absolutely must, make sure that you are at least consistent in your usage. In other words, do not switch back and forth between the original mono mixes and new digital stereo remixes, or you will give your listener a headache. It's just poor form.

Even worse is the phenomenon in which the remix/ mastering engineer decides to play God with the canon thereby elevating themselves to the level of the artist. Such shenanigans include but are not limited to: adding obvious effects, looping segments, dropping instruments and vocals in and out, indiscriminately fading and splicing, etc. This type of wankery should never be accepted unless the artist is on board from the git go, as in the case of the Grateful Dead's Greyfolded or Infrared Roses releases. For the traditional box set retrospective, this practice should be completely verboten.

Beatles fans everywhere rushed to purchase The Beatles Stereo Box, which contained no bonus material, but did feature immaculate remastering compared to their previously issued CDs-- absolute proof that sound quality matters.

Once you have compiled your ideal track line-up and have taken into account the time limitations of whatever physical medium you're using, you should then listen to the playback in sequence over a variety of different loudspeakers. Have one set of trusted studio monitors available in an acoustically sound environment for use as your mains. Only now through your primary speakers should you apply judicious EQ tweaking, and only in the most egregious of circumstances. In most cases, if you're working with high generation source material, it will sound just fine without any help from you.

In the off case that the existing master doesn't sound particularly good, you can now EQ it, with the goal being to get it to blend as seamlessly as possible with the surrounding material. Resist the urge to apply any kind of digital noise reduction or similar plug-in, effect or outboard device that can seriously compromise the sound of the existing master. This cannot be overstated! Many more tracks have been ruined via the application of Haeco-CSG or Sonic Solutions No Noise (look 'em up) than by the engineer leaving well enough alone.

For the final issue of loudness, many "normalizing" plug-ins are available on the market that adjust the relative volume of each track to a standardized level. It's advisable not to over-rely on these, but especially in the case of artists whose careers spans decades there likely will be an increase in volume throughout the years, as industry standards have constantly pushed for louder and louder recordings as time has progressed (the so-called "Loudness Wars"). As such, these plug-ins can prove invaluable when it comes to establishing a more consistent listening experience throughout your set.

Mastering engineer Bernie Grundman at the console.

Cover art and title: Not your biggest concern. If your set is primarily going to be downloaded, then the cover art is just a tiny square; and if the music is amazing then nobody is going to care about the artwork or the title anyway.

However for in-store browsers an attractive package is at least somewhat important. If it's at all within your control, try to ensure that the packaging of the box is eye-catching without being gaudy, and that the design accurately reflects the image of the artist whose music is contained within. Nothing is worse than garish modern fonts and image enhancement techniques (lense flare, drop shadows and such) promoting a release from an artist who represents a classic or timeless sensibility.

As for titles, your primary goal is to pick something that's not overly verbose and that hasn't been used as a previous package title somewhere in the artist's back catalog. (Perhaps harder than it sounds: How many dubious Byrds' hits collections with titles like Mr. Tambourine Man or Turn! Turn! Turn! have existed throughout the years?)

Add-ons: Or "tchotchkes"-- essentially the swag that gets tacked on to the set in an attempt to increase perceived value and justify the price.

Personally I hate this sort of stuff. I have no need for t-shirts, postcards or buttons. Just give me the music and some sort of book that talks about what I'm listening to-- preferably one that offers some real insight. However there are serious collectors of this sort of ephemera out there, just as there are real adults with baseball card and action figure collections. So if you want to include this sort of stuff, go ahead, but make certain that it doesn't somehow overshadow the music found within.

Another AC/DC box set, Back Tracks, comes housed in a real working amp.

Price: Should not equal more than $12.50 U.S. per CD. If you're charging more than $50 for a four disc set or $75 for a six disc one, then you are gouging your customers. Nobody pays more than $12.50 for a CD in this country these days (audiophiles excluded), so how can you justify charging more than that when the consumer is now buying in bulk?

Don't point to the pins, postcards and lavish packaging-- those are totally inessential to the story. Given the choice, most consumers would rather pay $75 for a simply packaged set than $150 for one with a bunch of useless add-ons. Instead, try to look at the box set as I described it in my last entry-- a chance to shore up old fans and make new ones.

Now once in a while there may come a set of such vital historical importance that it actually deserves reverential treatment, such as the Beach Boys' SMiLE Sessions box. And in this case it actually was handled properly by the powers that be. Various versions were released, including a 5 CD deluxe box set, as well as double vinyl and CD sets-- plus digital downloads for those with a lower budget who still wanted to see what the fuss was about.

The Beach Boys' SMiLE Sessions was released in many formats, including this deluxe edition.

Obviously deluxe box sets should have a degree of "wow factor" to them-- but this should not be an excuse to simply gouge the purchaser. Only the devoted are going to spend over $100 on a single purchase by an artist; but if you take care of the consumer in the $40-60 range, you'll be rewarded with a new fan on many a purchase.

With a glut of CD box sets currently on the market, it behooves the compiler to put the needs of the audience first. In doing so, they are not only providing a greater value to the consumer, but also doing right by the artist.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Box Set Dilemma Part 1: A Question of Balance

Career-spanning box sets like this one from Sublime are currently de rigueur for successful acts 

I still remember it like it was yesterday. I woke up on the morning of my nineteenth birthday and headed into the kitchen to grab a cup of the coffee my mom had just put on. As I walked past the dining room table, I noticed an elongated wrapped box addressed "To Jason, Love Mom".  Remembering to give her a hug and a kiss, I forewent the coffee and immediately set about tearing into the package, having a good idea what it contained.

Sure enough, just as I had asked for, it was the legendary Beach Boys Good Vibrations box set. I was overwhelmed and elated. Finally I was going to get to hear that SMiLE material that had tantalized me ever since I had started getting seriously into the Beach Boys five years prior. And then there was this all this stuff from their later albums which I couldn't ever seem to find at any of the local stores. This day was going to be one for the ages.

Little did I realize it back then, but box sets weren't always going to retain their aura and mystery. Particularly during the past decade as revenue from CD sales has decreased, record labels have increasingly targeted perhaps their last remaining demographic for physical product-- male boomers and gen-xers with disposable income-- with an ever-expanding array of multi-disc anthologies containing all manner of add-ons. But the question arises: when is enough finally enough? Is there any valid reason for the continuation of these deluxe artist retrospectives?


In the wake of the recent high profile releases like the Beach Boys' Made in California we've seen a lot of debate on the boards over whether or not the box set model is a particularly good value for either fans or neophytes. The most common argument I hear regarding box sets is along the lines of, "fans don't want to re-buy the same songs yet again, and newbs aren't going to want to hear studio outtakes if they haven't even heard most of the catalog yet". In other words, Greatest Hits and rarities collections ought to remain separate species and never intermingle.

 So is there even a justifiable reason to unleash a box set in this age of digital downloads/ streaming and infinitesimal attention spans? I'm not talking about sets like Harry Nilsson's RCA Albums Collection where the label just took a bunch of out-of-print albums and lumped them together into a big box to compensate for a market shortage, or one ones like Bob Dylan's The Bootleg Series vol. 10 - Another Self-Portrait that serve up outtake upon outtake to appease rabid fanboys; rather I'm describing the type of curated tour through a artist's back catalog that brings forth the highlights and skips the low points, while hopefully still offering a smattering of previously unheard gems.

Well as you could probably guess if you've spent any time at all reading my blog, I would argue that there definitely is a need for such sets. I would also put forth the proposition that it is exactly such sets that develop dilettantes into fans. Of course, the insatiable fan won't be satisfied with just the box and will want to devour an artist's entire back catalog; but in truth, how many artists do we have the time to actually do this with? As a life-long music listener, I can only think of a small handful of groups from which I've heard every note available to me-- groups I can honestly say I was obsessed with for long stretches of my life.

The one that started it all for me.

Similarly, there's a bevy of artists out there in which I'm only keenly interested in a certain era of their recorded output. The Rolling Stones might be the quintessential example of this phenomenon which I'm describing. I own and cherish practically everything they recorded up until around the time of 1978's Some Girls, but my knowledge of their work after that is rudimentary at best. Now I could take the time to go back and buy all those albums and listen to them in their entirety, but based off of the mostly tepid to outright negative reviews those records received, do I really want to waste my time doing that in the hopes that I might find an overlooked classic somewhere in the midst?

As such, a compilation of the group's later-day work is tailor made for somebody like me. Were such a thing to exist (and maybe it does, I haven't really thought to look into it until right now) I could listen to one or two discs worth of highlights, focus on the songs I like the best and then maybe go back and check out their particular host albums-- this is the compilation as gateway model.

Now let's expand that concept to artists as a whole. I'll go over all this in detail in part two of this article, but suffice to say that any compilation by any artist needs to start out by figuring out what its objective is, and then determining the proper number of discs (or total playing time, if you no longer think in terms of CDs the way I do) it takes to get there. The box set should always primarily cater to the person who has already heard the "hits" and finds themselves craving more-- somebody who's already on the verge of fandom. If you can hook them with the box, chances are you've got yourself a new dedicated fan.

The secondary purpose of the box set is to offer the already existent, time-challenged fan a go-to option when they're in the mood to hear your music. Ideally, they should be able to grab any CD from the set, throw it on while they're in the car on their way to work, and enjoy it all the way through without having to hit the dreaded skip button more than once or twice. Again, we'll discuss some of the pratfalls in part two.

So what are your thoughts on career-spanning box sets? Do they fill a need, or are they something artists put out in a purely mercenary fashion to gouge fans? Let us know, and I'll be back with part two of this article shortly!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Gary McFarland: an Anthology

Compilation (single artist)

Gary Ronald McFarland-- composer, arranger, producer, conductor, vibraphonist-- released fifteen albums throughout his lifetime on the Verve, Impulse! and Skye labels that were first met only with limited commercial and critical acclaim. He died in semi-obscurity at the age of 38, the victim of methadone poisoning in what some claimed was a cruel practical joke gone wrong. Today, most of his catalog remains out of print in the United States, with numerous titles never even released on compact disc.

McFarland was also a true musical genius possessed with a preternatural ability to craft both intricate orchestral jazz arrangements and catchy space age lounge-pop. His recorded output in toto stands as perhaps the very best "bachelor pad music" ever created; yet to define his music as such is to do it a disservice. There is little of the overt kitsch or cheese that one might associate with that overused term to be found in the Gary McFarland catalog.

Rather, Gary's supremely clever arrangements served to bolster his outrageously catchy melodies, culminating is some of the strongest jazz/ pop of the 1960s. And as it was with spiritual peers such as Brian Wilson and Curt Boettcher, McFarland was equally at home producing other artists as he was writing, arranging and recording his own music.

Bit hard by the jazz bug while serving in the U.S. Army, McFarland's talents were prodigious enough to earn the then-twenty-five year old a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Though he ultimately attended Berklee for just one semester, it was just enough time for the youngster to cultivate many useful connections, particularly one he formed with Hungarian-born jazz guitarist/ fellow student Gábor Szabó.

Szabó and numerous other classmates would soon collaborate with McFarland on the exceedingly rare, independently pressed 1959 Jazz in the Classroom, vol. 4 LP, on which four of the compositions and arrangements were McFarland's own. All four have all been included here for the first time ever on CD.

In the summer of 1959 McFarland was invited to attend the prestigious Lenox School of Jazz, which was held at the Music Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts. Amongst the distinguished musicians who helped form the faculty was the school's executive director John Lewis (of the Modern Jazz Quartet), who was so taken with the "adult prodigy" McFarland that he gave the unknown composer/ arranger the break of his life, by recording an entire album's worth of Gary's compositions with full credit applied.

Although Essence remained unreleased until 1962, McFarland's involvement with a jazz giant like John Lewis immediately opened the door for his professional career, and Gary was soon given the edifying opportunity to compose and arrange for some of the true legends of the industry.

In short order Gary McFarland contributed songs and arrangements to Gerry Mulligan's concert band, worked closely with the gifted jazz valve-trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and produced and arranged Anita O'Day's classic All the Sad Young Men LP, for which he also composed three original songs, including one that featured lyrics courtesy of his friend Margo Guryan.

McFarland's efforts as a hired-gun arranger culminated with Stan Getz's influential 1962 release Big Band Bossa Nova, in which Gary also wrote four of the album's eight tracks. Getz had only recently discovered the Brazilian bossa nova sound for himself and would soon become perhaps its leading proponent in the United States. As such, Big Band Bossa Nova was viewed as an important stepping stone upon release, and McFarland drew much praise in the jazz world for his intricate, inventive arrangements.

Under the tutelage of John Lewis, McFarland had also become immersed in the nascent "Third Stream" school that sought to incorporate the scope and sweep of symphonic classical music into jazz. Accordingly, Gary's arranging abilities were growing by leaps and bounds, and he was soon tapped by Verve to arrange the soundtrack to Frank Loesser's current blockbuster musical How to Succeed in Business without Even Trying for jazz big band.

While the album itself bore little relationship to the Third Stream style, favoring more of a traditional big band jazz sound, it nevertheless bolstered Gary into the mainstream on the basis of both his masterful arrangements and the lingering goodwill afforded to what was one hell of a musical. (Likewise, anyone who loves this type of thing, or the acting of the brilliant Robert Morse aka "Burt Cooper" of Mad Men fame, is well advised to check out both this album and the 1967 movie of the same name.)

The album was both a modest success and well regarded, and soon lead to a solo recording contract for McFarland with leading jazz label Verve Records. Soon Gary would reach an early career peak with the brilliant Third Stream-influenced collaborative effort Gary McFarland Orchestra: Special Guest soloist Bill Evans, as well as his cutting-edge work with his own Gary McFarland Sextet: Point of Departure.

The title Point of Departure was more than just a convenient name for a record album-- a fact best represented by its cool, West Coast flavored lead-off track "Pecos Pete". With its shuffling backing track and breezy flutes, the results here were more Mancini than Mahler.

As '63 turned into '64, America began a brief love affair with the sophisticated sounds of Brazil, as bossa nova fever swept the land. First popularized locally by a handful of west coast jazz musicians who had returned with armfuls of records after touring Brazil, the sultry sound of the southern continent had spread northward in the wake of Stan Getz anJoão Gilberto's "The Girl from Ipanema"'s domination the North American pop charts.

Conversely by February of 1964 new sounds were emerging from yet another continent, as The Beatles triumphantly conquered the U.S. in the wake of their appearances on the Ed Sullivan show. The Fab Four were instantly crowned the champions of America's burgeoning youth culture; but for sophisticated adult music fans it was a different matter indeed.

Jazz musicians and their fans, traditionally rigid in their tastes, largely scoffed at The Beatles; but in his wisdom Gary heard something the others perhaps didn't. Whether it was the ringing of far-off cash registers or a true immediate love of their music is uncertain, but McFarland would go on to cover not one but four Beatles tunes on his next album Soft Samba-- making him the first notable jazz musician to give the Fabs their props on record. Also mixed amongst the Beatles tracks on the album were covers of contemporary soft pop numbers, all quite far removed from the ambitious original material found on earlier McFarland offerings.

In truth Soft Samba was nearly a pure bossa nova record-- one which featured for the first time the actual vocals of its creator, albeit in wordless form. Gary simply added "ba ba ba"-type vocal accompaniment to double his self-performed vibraphone leads-- a style which would become something of his signature sound from this point forward.

Backed instrumentally by no less than Tom Jobim on acoustic guitar (talk about your instant credibility) in addition to such luminaries as Kenny Burrell and Willie Bobo, one might think today that the album would have been praised upon release. Yet Instead it was chiefly savaged amongst the jazz cognoscenti, and thus victimized by brutal reviews that did much to curtail McFarland's rapid ascent over the past five years.

Yet apparently it was still a year or two too early for jazz musicians to attempt to add Beatles songs to their repertoire without inviting reprisal from the peanut gallery. Nevertheless, Soft Samba was a hit with the public and ultimately proved to be quite an influential statement. Soon numerous heavy hitters like Bud Shank and Wes Montgomery would follow McFarland's footsteps and find commercial success with covers of songs by The Beatles and other pop groups.

For the rest of his life, Gary McFarland would often bifurcate his musical sensibilities between the worlds of lounge pop and "serious" music. Simultaneously he would also continue to develop his vitae as a producer, particularly after forming the Skye Records label with his musical colleges Cal Tjader and former classmate Gábor Szabó in 1968.

Each album baring McFarland's name was really a world unto itself; like any great magician he never performed the same trick exactly the same way. Orchestrated jazz masterworks like The October Suite (featuring pianist Steve Kuhn) and the Grammy-nominated America the Beautiful: An Account of Its Disappearance (with a young Eric Gayle playing the lead Telecaster) were interspersed with confections such as the quintessential space-age bachelor pop LP The In Sound, or the mellow Simpático where McFarland and Szabó kicked back and harmonized together on Beatles covers and a gorgeous version of "Nature Boy".

Likewise, Gary also demonstrated his mastery by producing records on his new label for percussionist extraordinaire Airto, soul singer and studio drummer par excellence Grady Tate and psych-pop sister duo Wendy & Bonnie, amongst others just before his untimely demise in 1971.

There has yet to be a huge posthumous re-evaluation of the musical legacy of Gary McFarland, but it's never too late to start one. The first step would be an extensive examination of his back catalog by a loving record label, which now may actually be in the works as Él Records has recently re-issued two of Gary's Skye recordings-- Does the Sun Ever Shine on the Moon and America the Beautiful-- as a CD 2-fer (regrettably with no additional bonus material).

Until then, most of his catalog is currently available only as pricey imports, if at all. However a documentary movie on McFarland's life by director Kristian St. Clair has appeared at numerous film festivals and is supposedly soon going to be made available on DVD. More info here:


In the meantime, McFarland neophytes are advised to scour the used bins of their local record shops or eBay for the original vinyl records, most of which are still easy enough to find and not seriously overpriced... yet. So until his back catalog gets the deluxe reissue treatment it deserves, we invite you to enjoy this three-disc collection of the best of Gary McFarland.

The music here is evenly divided with one disc dedicated to Gary's pop/ lounge-jazz sides, one disc to his straight jazz stuff and the third to other artists' tracks which Gary composed and arranged. Regardless of your taste preferences though, if you're a fan of inspired melodies and musicianship then you're sure to find something to enjoy when it comes to the lasting work of Gary McFarland.

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A hugely informative McFarland fan site with session dates, reviews and more:

Further information on twelve of McFarland's best compositions, all of which we've included here: