Maynard Ferguson Live & Well in London
(Sleepy Night Records SNRCD019. CD Review by Peter Jones)
Canadian-born trumpet player and bandleader Maynard Ferguson was a true inhabitant of the late Sixties – close friend of LSD “guru” Timothy Leary, practitioner of hatha yoga breathing exercises, regular visitor to India, and so on. At the time, the popularity of big bands was in steep decline, something Ferguson addressed by becoming one of the inventors of jazz-rock. Like so many jazz musicians from the other side of the Atlantic, he saw that European capitals were more receptive to his chosen art-form, and moved his family to England between 1967 and 1972. During his stay he enjoyed success in the capable hands of Stockport-based jazz manager and promoter Ernie Garside (who I believe is still with us, residing in a care home). Ferguson’s fame in the UK reached his peak when he led the house band on the BBC’s Dee Time, a popular early evening TV chat show based on Johnny Carson’s US Tonight show, and broadcast live on Saturdays.
This limited edition double CD from Sleepy Night Records is a labour of love, consisting of a live disc and a studio disc. The latter consists of out-takes from a session recorded at Lansdowne Studios in February 1971 and released on the CBS label. The live one, which seems to feature a slightly different band, has only come to light following the recent discovery of a tape in a box with “100” written on it. The tape proved to contain a recording presumably made at the 100 Club, although the cover photograph shows Ferguson posing outside The Pheasantry in the Kings Road. The gig was intended as a warm-up for the studio album, and hence contains many of the same tunes, as well as some not featured on it.
The live recordings are great fun, with plenty of laughter and chat going on during the announcements and the solos, including the tenor solo on Aquarius from the musical Hair. Spinning Wheel was another popular tune of the era, originally recorded by US jazz-rock combo Blood, Sweat & Tears. The jazzing up of pop tunes was Maynard Ferguson’s USP, although Elton John’s Your Song seems a curious choice for the big band treatment, even if it was arranged by Kenny Wheeler. The sound quality on this disc may be described as indifferent. No one can blame a big band drummer for playing loud, but Randy Jones’s drums are a little too prominent. The bass is too quiet, as is the piano, which is frustrating during its solo on a tune called Big Dicker (aka The Serpent). Maynard Ferguson’s announcements are hard to make out, although you can hear tenor star Stan Robinson mentioned as the soloist on both Aquarius and Whisper Not. Some of the tunes sound under-rehearsed, especially Stoney End, the title track of a recent Barbra Streisand album.
The second CD is easier on the ears, and provides a fascinating glimpse into Ferguson’s approach to recording, beginning with no fewer than three widely varying takes of the Jethro Tull song Living in the Past, which is also the first track on the live album, and there’s yet another take of it later on. A funky Fire and Rain (the James Taylor number) is great, but let’s just say that the shrieking trumpets on Bridge Over Troubled Water do not induce the same level of calm one experiences when listening to the original. The version of the Laura Nyro tune Eli’s Coming is an exhilarating ride that ends with a beautiful but uncredited flute solo.