Saturday, February 04, 2023

The Gary McFarland Quartet featuring Gabor Szabo – Soft Samba Live! Jazz from the Penthouse

Seattle’s famed jazz club the Penthouse, located in the city’s historic – and now trendy – Pioneer Square neighborhood, only operated from 1962 to 1968.

The hotel that housed the club was soon thereafter demolished. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, they paved paradise and put up a parking garage. Really! Yet, in that short time, the club witnessed – and even more remarkably, for posterity, taped! – an amazing treasure trove of incredible music.

A 1965 John Coltrane performance – with Pharoah Sanders, Donald Garrett, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones – recorded at the Penthouse, was famously issued (in part) as Live in Seattle in 1971. And most recently, the reluctant-to-revisit-the-past pianist Ahmad Jamal agreed to issue Emerald City Nights, two double-disc volumes of his own remarkable mid-sixties Penthouse performances.

Longtime Seattle DJ Jim Wilke (on KNKX since 1988) recorded some 350 reel-to-reel tapes at the Penthouse in the sixties and has been working with Charlie Puzzo, Jr., the son of Penthouse founder Charlie Puzzo, to get more “Jazz from the Penthouse” out for a whole new generation to experience jazz greats in a whole new setting.

In the summer of 1965, Wilke captured two superbly-performed Penthouse sets by the then-fledgling Gary McFarland Quintet, an East Coast unit featuring such newcomers as Japanese reed player Sadao Watanabe (b. 1933), Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo (1936-82), Puerto Rican bassist Eddie Gomez (b. 1944) and American drummer Joe Cocuzzo (1937-2008).

Even McFarland (1933-71) himself was something of a newcomer. In 1965, McFarland was known as more of an arranger – for Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan and Anita O’Day – than a leader. And while he had helmed several notable albums of his own, these are records that were probably not well known out West…and maybe not even outside of New York City area.

Although McFarland was new to jazz by only a few years, he immediately felt hemmed in by its limits – and his own lack of reach in the traditional jazz language. He was, after all, a young man in what was by then considered an old man’s game. After the composer’s success with his ballet Reflections in the Park (1964) as well as work outside jazz in TV, jingles and film, McFarland sought to expand his reach.

This led to the birth of Gary McFarland’s Soft Samba, a blend of the Beatles – a real rarity at the time – and bossa nova as well as popular film themes with an easy swing. Nary an original in sight. The songs were shorter and the jazz was minimal, a calculation intended to open opportunities for pop-radio programming.

Soft Samba was released in February 1965 and the critics either hated it or ignored it altogether. In its one-star review DownBeat called it “cheap and trivial” as well as “musical self-pollution” (whatever that means). But the Creed Taylor-produced album found more of an audience than anything McFarland had previously participated in.

Soft Samba, which Verve Records dubbed “the sound for ’65,” afforded McFarland the opportunity to form his first group in the summer of that year and take his genuinely unique brand of music out on the road. During a swing along the West Coast – the quintet also played San Francisco’s Basin Street West around this time – McFarland’s group played two nights at the Penthouse.

Much of the group’s Penthouse performances were initially featured as a bonus CD to the 2014 DVD release of Kristian St. Clair’s documentary film This is Gary McFarland (2006).

For this first-ever vinyl release, St. Clair has astutely pared down the program to feature the concerts’ highlights. As he notes on the record’s inner sleeve, he curated the album as though it were “programmed and released in 1965 at the height of McFarland’s popularity.” It’s a perfect calculation.

Of the six tracks on Soft Samba Live! - nicely mimicking the era’s fondness for imbuing jazz titles with major significance – three come directly from Soft Samba. And one of these, “She Loves You,” appears here for the first time.

Sure, there’s pop here but there’s plenty of jazz. Good jazz, too. The tracks are all longer than the studio originals and the solos – usually by the leader, Watanabe (most often on flute) and, most especially, Szabo – are consistently thoughtful and engaging.

To these ears, Szabo adds a real edge to the proceedings. It’s a positively cohesive quintet and the flute-vibes-guitar combo makes a nice sound, particularly ignited by the interesting work Gomez and Cocuzzo do to power up the engine.

McFarland’s bah-bah vocals are minimal (he does a little whistling on “La vie en rose”) and limited to the melody lines of a few songs. But McFarland & Co. veer away from Soft Samba, too. Indeed, the set opens with McFarland’s enchanting “Caravan”-like “Pecos Pete,” the highlight of McFarland’s 1964 sextet album Point of Departure.

Luiz Bonfá’s “Manha de Carnaval” was previously covered by McFarland as a vibes player on Bob Brookmeyer’s Trombone Jazz Samba (1962) and as arranger, days later, on Stan Getz’s masterful Big Band Bossa Nova.

McFarland’s lovely “Train Samba” – which seems to mirror a bit of Edu Lobo’s “Reza” – was originally written for J.J. Johnson’s 1965 LP J.J.! but became a staple in the quintet’s repertoire. Surprisingly, McFarland never recorded “Train Samba” under his own name, so it’s nice to have it here: It is surely the album’s highlight and spotlight’s Szabo’s finest moment on the record.

In August, McFarland would wax the Soft Samba sequel, The In Sound with Szabo and Watanabe in tow, while the quintet would reconvene for the DownBeat Jazz Festival in Chicago on August 13 and 14 (highlights are said to have been McFarland’s never-released “I’ll Write You a Poem,” here a feature for Szabo, and “Train Samba”).

By September, Szabo hooked up with Charles Lloyd’s quartet but reunited in November with McFarland and Watanabe for the guitarist’s debut studio album Gypsy ‘66 - whose iconic cover, like the genuinely haunting image of McFarland on the cover of Soft Samba Live!, was shot by Fred Seligo (1935-69).

Sadao Watanabe returned home to Japan that November and recorded his own album Sadao Watanabe Plays (1966), which features Watanabe’s flute-led take on “Train Samba,” with the nice addition of Akira Miyazawa’s second flute.

McFarland would reunite with Szabo and Cocuzzo for the McFarland orchestra’s February 6, 1966, Lincoln Center performance (part of which was issued on record as Profiles) and once more in May of that year for the McFarland-Szabo pop project Simpático.

While Gary McFarland and Gabor Szabo would go on to work together for the next several years, that is pretty much the entire history of the Gary McFarland Quintet. To date, Soft Samba Live! remains the sole documentation of the group’s all-too brief existence.

Each member of this group has made their own unique contributions to music over the years. But the sound they make together here at this particular moment in history, however rare, is a beautiful one and one I am particularly thankful to the producers for not only capturing but releasing.

One of McFarland’s earliest albums praised his “remarkable versatility and effortless melodic inventiveness.” That may well sum up Soft Samba Live! better than any other album in Gary McFarland’s divinely – or, depending on your viewpoint, divisively – diverse discography. It all comes together here.

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