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: