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On A High Note by Maynard Ferguson

Maynard Ferguson was, in his own professional and hard-working way, one of those "threshold" jazz musicians who excited an interest in the art form and opened listeners’ ears, once enraptured by Ferguson’s high-noted charm, to the geometrically expanding possibilities of improvised music. A few years ago, I was surprised to see that Maynard Ferguson’s performance at the local high school was announced by no more than a single listing in the metropolitan newspaper. The school had no budget for advertising. Still, the auditorium was filled, and Ferguson continued his determined proselytization of converts to jazz through the power of his music, rather than through the power of words. When I arrived at the concert, I found my neighbor entering the auditorium, and I didn’t even know he liked jazz. He told me with evident enthusiasm, "I saw Maynard Ferguson years ago and I had to bring my brother to hear him so that he can know what I was talking about. I can’t believe he’s performing at our high school." (Admission was $7 per person.)

Ferguson’s unexpected passing in August last year was as upsetting to a segment of jazz enthusiasts as was Miles Davis’ in the previous decade. Both trumpeters, though of diametrically opposing personalitities and styles, expanded the possibilities of the instrument. No matter how many imitators may have emerged, there was only one Miles Davis. And there was only one Maynard Ferguson, who also imprinted his personality on the sound of jazz trumpet. It may be unfashionable among the guardians of jazz to enjoy both Miles Davis and Maynard Ferguson. It has even been unfashionable to admit liking Maynard Ferguson’s music because he committed the jazz sins of being unabashedly extroverted and commercially successful, though some of most popular albums also were his most artistically suspect. In recent years, Ferguson’s influence is being re-evaluated. Mosaic Records has made available Ferguson’s entire output on Roulette Records highly recommended for Ferguson’s youthful bursts of fiery improvisation, effortless command of the instrument and exceptional arrangements by band members like Willie Maiden and Bill Holman. A re-listen of Newport Suite would confirm the explorative ebullience of his big band, featuring Ferguson’s rare and exhilarating performance on baritone horn in musical conversation with baritone saxophonist Frank Hittner. In addition to increasing significantly the volume of jazz consumers not only of his music but geometrically of many others’ after being bitten by the jazz bug Ferguson provided early-career performance opportunities for a large number of jazz artists, including Jaki Byard, Denis DiBlasio, Mel Lewis, Tim Ries, Carmen Leggio, Joe Zawinul, Herb Geller, Irene Kral, Don Ellis, John Bunch, Joe Farrell, Slide Hampton, Peter Erskine and Wayne Shorter.

After Ferguson’s rocketing popularity from his recording of "Gonna Fly Now" fell, he, indefatigable, formed the Big Bop Nouveau band and started to record on Concord. And he continued to tour incessantly, or so it seemed, to an extent greater than any other former big band leader. On a High Note: The Best of the Concord Jazz Recordings compiles Ferguson’s late-career work from the five CDs he recorded for Concord between 1994 and 2001. Remarkably consistent, Ferguson, it appears, was a strategic leader as he shaped each band to support the brassy, driving sound that he envisioned. The Ferguson we heard in the 1990s sounded uncannily similar to the Ferguson we heard in the 1950s when he astounded listeners with his seemingly impossible high notes and irresistible power. On a High Note (what a perfect title for the album) starts with trombonist/guitarist Tom Garling’s composition and arrangement of "You Got It," a jabbing, pulsating platform for Ferguson’s trumpet playing, on which he holds back nothing, satisfying and aggressively eloquent as always. The interesting element of "You Got It" is Garling’s fast, cleanly articulated solo, reminding listeners of Ferguson’s everlasting interest in outstanding trombone work, as well as that of the trumpet.

A piece like "Caravan" would seem to be perfectly suited for Ferguson, and so it is, as he soars through it with verve and infectious integration Lorenzo Martinez’ polyrhythmic intensity. From the very start of "Caravan," Ferguson takes control of the piece with another of his high-spirited, high-noted introductions. As the tracks of the CD proceed, it becomes evident that Ferguson opens most of them with similar exclamations stentorian announcements of presence and enthusiasm. Even Stanley Turrentine’s "Sugar," which usually is played with an easy melodic swing, conforms to the spirit of Ferguson’s personality as he lifts the arrangements into an expected stratospheric realm in the second chorus.

Ferguson’s final Concord recordings were projects shared with singers Michael Feinstein and Diane Schuur. Swingin’ for Schuur, in particular, paired two generous but strong-willed talents whose volumes of synergism were event as one inspired the other to even higher levels of exuberance on "Let's Fall in Love." It would seem unlikely for Ferguson to restrain his band to cushion a singer’s voice. Rather, the singer would need to rise to the challenge presented by Ferguson’s sound, as Schuur does.

On a High Note not only provides a tribute to The Force in jazz trumpet playing, but also it reminds us that Ferguson’s career ended on a high note due to his affiliation with Concord. This compilation reaffirms that the Concord albums were as representative of the creative energy of his music as were his early Roulette recordings.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Maynard Ferguson
  • CD Title: On A High Note
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2007
  • Record Label: Concord Jazz
  • Tracks: You Got It, Caravan, Just Friends, Manteca, Sugar, I Love You, Knee Deep in Rio, Close Your Eyes, Let’s Fall In Love, Birdland
  • Musicians: Maynard Ferguson (trumpet), Matt Wallace, Chris Farr, Chip McNeill, Sal Giorgianni, Gary Foster, Jeff Rupert, Mike Dubaniewicz, Jim Brenan, Dan Higgins, Sal Lozano (saxophones), Scott Englebright, Carl Fischer, Jon Owens, Joey Tartell, Larry Foyen, Frank Greene, Wayne Bergeron, Adolfo Acosta, Brian Ploeger, Bobby Shew, Patrick Hession, Paul Armstrong, Peter Ferguson (trumpet), Tom Garling, Alex Iles, Reggie Watkins, Bryant Byers (trombone), Jim Self (tuba), Dan Zank, Ron Oswanski, Michael Feinstein, Earl MacDonald, Jeff Lashway (piano), Dan Zank (keyboards), Dennis Budimir, Tom Garling (guitar), Phil Palombi, Chris Berger, Paul Thompson, Brian Stahurski (bass), Marko Marcinko, Albie Berk, Brian Wolfe, Dave Throckmorton, Jason Harnell (drums), Larry Bunker (percussion). Special Guests: Michael Feinstein, Diane Schuur (vocals), Denis DiBlasio (tenor saxophone), Lorenzo Martinez (percussion).
  • Rating: Four Stars
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