Happy October. I can think of no better way to welcome my favorite month than to remind you of a splendid recording named for it. Gary McFarland (1933-1971) composed and arranged October Suite for the pianist Steve Kuhn. They recorded it in 1966. Almost immediately, the LP on the Impulse! label went into hiding. Well into this century, a CD version finally appeared. The quality of October Suite earns it renown far beyond what it has received. Many recordings of McFarland’s music, and of Kuhn’s, have attracted more attention. Few have October Suite’s consistent beauty. None has its success in melding musical idioms, with the possible exception of McFarland’s 1963 collaboration with pianist Bill Evans. October Suite has mistakenly been labeled Third Stream, but no categorical description captures its elegance. The suite can fairly be called, without reference to genre, a minor masterpiece of writing by McFarland and of playing by Kuhn and a small chamber orchestra. Bassist Ron Carter and drummer Marty Morell are important to the success of the performances.
No tracks of the suite seem to have appeared as videos in the usual places. On Vimeo, Kristian St. Clair has posted a segment of his documentary about McFarland’s short, productive career and the unsolved mystery of his death. Gene Lees once called McFarland an adult prodigy. A similar term might be applied to Kuhn, who was 28 at the time of the recording. In the documentary, composer-arranger-saxophonist Bill Kirchner discusses McFarland’s talent, and Kuhn comments on his collaboration with McFarland. The film includes passages of Mark Masters conducting music from October Suite for his 2007 McFarland tribute album Wish Me Well, which has Kuhn reprising his role.
In his notes for October Suite, Nat Hentoff wrote:
…the approach—letting the classical instruments function on their own terms simultaneously with jazz men following their own idiom—may well stimulate other composers and performers from both fields to explore different combinations of equals.
In the past 47 years, despite McFarland’s and Kuhn’s example, there has been in music much less of that symmetry that we might wish.