By Geoff Gehman ’80
Lafayette’s James Bond of jazz, Jack Furlong ’05 is on a mission to deliver intrepid entertainment whether he’s arranging 007 movie tunes for the Jazz Ensemble, jazzing up “The A-Team” theme for the Pep Band, or performing a bebopping march about his mechanic with his all-alumni band.
His latest accessible adventure is “And That Happened” (Bridge & Tunnel Records), the Jack Furlong Quartet’s third CD in five years. Recorded in the College’s Williams Center for the Arts, it blends slinky swing, sparkling meditations, and familiar mysteries. Furlong weaves his smoky, subtle baritone sax around the sympathetic, searching playing of drummer John O’Keefe ’96, who performed in Furlong’s senior recital, and pianist Sean Gough ’09 and bassist Pat Kelley ’09, who were Furlong’s Jazz Combo apprentices.
Lafayette was Furlong’s jazz guild. He gave up playing baseball catcher to concentrate on the alto sax, which he picked up at age 10, and the baritone sax, which he picked up at 17. He improved his chops as player, composer, and leader in the Jazz Ensemble, which he helped direct for two years. He also received a valuable lesson in diplomacy from J. Larry Stockton, professor and head of the music department and a jazz authority. “He told me to pick your battles, to not take anything too deep in the skin,” says Furlong. “He reminded me that music is a trade, very much like being a blacksmith.”
It was Stockton who introduced Furlong to O’Keefe, a fellow fan of the New York Yankees and smooth, spiky jazz. The drummer found the saxophonist unusually open and open tuned while preparing for Furlong’s senior recital, which featured a recasting of John Coltrane’s “Impressions” as a shuffle funk.
“A lot of people will go through negotiations when you first meet them,” says O’Keefe, now the College’s associate vice president for technology and chief information officer. “With Jack, right away there were no boundaries. His engagement was professional, but also casual and disarming. He was fun and joking; it was like I had known him for years.”
A music graduate, Furlong holds a master’s in jazz composition and arranging from William Paterson University, Wayne, N.J. He studied with Jim McNeely, a vaunted pianist and resident composer with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. During that time, he moonlighted as the Jazz Ensemble’s guest soloist and arranger. The group, which he still co-directs, became a laboratory for testing his jazzy versions of “From Russia with Love,” “The Man with the Golden Gun,” and other Bond film themes. The experience primed him to complete his master’s thesis, “Band, Jazz Band: The Relationship Between Jazz and the Music of James Bond.
Furlong’s Bondian mission was managed by McNeely, his musical “M.” “Jim gave me that general challenge I needed,” says Furlong. “He showed me the importance of non-musical thought in composing. That you can change emotions by changing chords. That a lot of feeling should go into this; that there’s a big world to this.”
Furlong applies McNeely’s practical philosophy to the Pep Band, which he’s been directing for three years. This season he decided to steer his charges from crowd-pleasing fluff to more challenging, satisfying fare. He devised half-time shows devoted to jazz fusion (i.e., Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”), ’80s movie and TV themes (“The A-Team”), and video-game soundtracks (“Sonic the Hedgehog”).
“The kids want Lady Gaga, but the music and the arrangements suck,” says Furlong, who as an undergraduate was too busy earning money for school on weekends to play in the Pep Band. “The message is that we are no longer just a social ensemble; we are a social ensemble with musical integrity.”
Furlong also filtered McNeely’s earthy, lofty attitude into his compositions on “And That Happened.” You can hear it in the cheery, sneaky “McNeely & Me.” Or “April,” a dreamy tribute to a former masseuse. Or “Walt’s Place,” a hepcatting New Orleans second-line portrait of Furlong’s mechanic, a good-humored humanitarian who looks like a pirate Santa Claus.
“Jack’s music is not fancy; it’s not wearing a suit and tie,” says O’Keefe. “He is a blue-collar guy who writes straight-ahead, straight-up jazz based on his experiences, including the friends at his favorite pizza place. He’s different, to be sure. He’s definitely out of left field–even though he was a catcher.”
In fact, Furlong may be a case of breaking the mold, twice. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds he’s plenty big enough to play the baritone sax, one of the heftiest of jazz instruments. Yet his playing is unusually gentle, marked by lathed phrasing and melodic arabesques. There are few well-known baritone-sax band leaders; Gerry Mulligan is probably the most notable exception. Furlong compensates by letting his three colleagues solo extensively, by telling jokes, by performing everything from a loving waltz to the theme to “Thunderball.”
Furlong is irreverent enough to help run a Facebook list of inside jokes—with pictures. He’s reverent enough to direct music for the College’s Newman Association. His ecumenical nature makes him a spiritual descendant of Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and other secular-sacred player-composer-directors.
Furlong is particularly proud of the way his quartet has become a harmonious family. He and his comrades will celebrate their evolution on Oct. 7 when they make their New York City debut as a foursome. What makes the gig extra special is that the Somethin’ Jazz Club used to be named after the revolutionary trumpeter Miles Davis, whose version of “Bye Bye Blackbird” Furlong worships.
“We’re all equals; it just so happens my name is on the quartet,” says Furlong. “Our friendship, musical and otherwise, is evidence that providence exists. It may not be empirical, but it warms my heart.”
The quartet performs at 7 p.m., Oct. 7 at the Somethin’ Jazz Club, 212 E. 52nd St.; (212) 371-7657. Furlong solos with an undergraduate jazz ensemble at 8 p.m., Dec. 2 at the Empie Theatre, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown; (484) 664-3100. CDs available at www.jackfurlong.com.