October Suite

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 October Suitehiding. 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.

For Douglas Payne’s biography of Gary McFarland, go here. For one of Steve Kuhn, go to his website.

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  1. Rob D says

    Fascinating music..I was talking to a friend who is a musician and he asked me about McFarland. I will have to point him to this recording.

  2. Tim says

    Thanks, Doug. Your recommendations carry a lot of weight. I just ordered The October Suite, and look forward to listening.

  3. Larry Dunlap says

    This has been one of my favorite recordings since it first came out. It is as fresh today as when it was first recorded. A minor masterpiece. I recommend it highly.

  4. says

    Re Hentoff from the liner notes to October Suite:

    If I may blow my own horn, (pun intended): I have composed a Jazz Piano Concerto (2000), “ORBITALS”, in which I score the symphony orchestra traditionally but treat the piano both from a classical pianist’s view and from the jazz improvisor’s perspective. There were no clashes, thank God. I have been composing in this manner since I was just a teenager. It seemed to come naturally to me.

    Another late bloomer at 26.

    Also: I wore out my vinyl copy of the McFarland masterpiece.

  5. Jon Foley says

    1. A minor correction – while the Mark Masters album “Wish Me Well” (which I own) is a tribute to McFarland and does feature Steve Kuhn, it does not feature any of the music from “October Suite.” The clip from St. Clair’s documentary does show Kuhn and an orchestra playing some of the music from “October Suite,” but it wasn’t shot during the making of the album; a super identifies it as from an “October Suite Concert, March 2003.” I’d love to hear that whole concert because …………..

    2. …I bought the LP version of “October Suite” when it first came out; loved the writing, loved Steve Kuhn’s playing. Yet, I didn’t keep the album. Years later, when the CD finally came out, my first reaction was “I’ve gotta get this,” but my second one was “but why did I get rid of the LP?” I just couldn’t remember. So I bought the CD, put it on and immediately it hit me – “oh, now I remember – THE PIANO!” I can’t be the only person who can hear how tinny and out of tune the piano is, can I? I remember now thinking when I first bought it, I can’t believe they released an album with a piano sounding that bad. And featuring, of all people, Steve Kuhn – a musician known for his touch and the beauty of the sound he produces. I’m amazed that he didn’t refuse to play that instrument without it being tuned. Thoughts, anyone?