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January/February 2008

Maynard Ferguson
The Lost Tapes, Vol. 1
Sleepy Night

In 1967 and 1968, before his big pop hits of the early 1970s like “MacArthur Park,” Maynard Ferguson led a mostly British big band in England. Ernie Garside, who played trumpet in and managed the group at points during its existence, also owned a club in Manchester where the band played. These tapes come from both studio demos and live sessions at that club and others recorded by Garside.

This band was Ferguson’s first concerted response to embrace rock music, his own big-band fusion of jazz and rock. That approach jumps right out on the opening track, “L-Dopa,” with a solid backbeat taking over after the leader’s heraldic opening high notes leading into a funky melody reminiscent of Horace Silver. This band didn’t swing so much as rock out, very pugnaciously at that, as the solos by saxophonists on the track emphasize. It was a high-energy band, as the choogling “Watermelon Man” live track, with soaring solos, proves. “The Fruit of the Loon” adds boogaloo to the mix (the bassist played electric more than upright; the pianist doubled on electric keyboards) and Ferguson got decidedly psychedelic on “Eleanor Rigby,” featuring sustained church organ chords under flugelhorn and electric bass.

Ferguson is at his irrepressible best, prone to go off in the stratosphere even on ballads like “Tenderly,” a real oxymoron if describing Ferguson’s playing. Another big ballad, Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” is the definition of a Ferguson power ballad, and quite a catch for his fans, as Garside says this was the most requested number by the band that it never officially recorded. The least jazz-rock, and one of the best-sustained tracks, is the 17-minute “Italian Suite,” three charts by Don Menza that Ferguson put together under that rubric. As well as some sophisticated section writing and counterpoint, it also has Ferguson’s longest and most fluid trumpet solo, one beginning with a surprisingly lissome duet with the bassist.

Originally published in January/February 2008
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