By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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By Alice Laussade
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Although the size of his bands has varied (current aggregation Big Bop Nouveau's roster hovers at around 10 members), Ferguson has always had a keen sense of how to exploit the power of brass, getting a big, roaring sound that hovers just this side (and sometimes the other, according to critics) of a blare, inspired by what he calls Kenton's "brash wall of sound." He plays a number of brass instruments live--trumpet, trombone, baritone, flugelhorn--and has had custom instruments designed for him, among them a combination valve-slide trombone and a trumpet variation of the same design; the combination of the two systems gives Ferguson an amazing ability to change keys while playing. "There's just a sensuous quality to a slide instrument," he explains, "and [his custom instruments] are very well-suited to the quarter-tones in Indian music."
In his bold, controlled-but-almost-over-the-top attack, he reminds the listener of surf guitarist Dick Dale (with whom he's unfamiliar)--not so much in style but in the sheer exhilaration of their approach. It's a similarity bolstered by the fascination the two share with Eastern and Spanish/Moorish influences. Check out Ferguson's "Ganesha," from 1985's Live From San Francisco, or the more recent "Sweet Baba Suite," from The Gospel Truth. "I enjoy my East-West thing," he says. "I think all music's moving toward world music."
Perhaps the most commendable aspect of Ferguson's career is his devotion to teaching and sharing his gifts with younger players. A quick look at any of his itineraries will reveal a schedule heavy on towns like Coal Township, Pennsylvania, and Muskogee, Oklahoma, loaded with high school and junior college venues. For many, such gigs are sure signs of career death, but not for Ferguson.
"That's the part I really enjoy," he says. "Working with bands, critiquing players, and giving clinics. For me, it's fun."
He has also inked a deal with his label, Concord Jazz, that allows him to produce two albums a year from talented newcomers. "It's so rewarding to be in a position where I can help guys with their careers if I find them exceptional, and it's fun to sit in the studio when you don't have to perform." It's also a relief for the musicians he works with. "When you've made over 60 albums," Ferguson says, "you come to know what you do and don't like about producers, and I try to bring that experience into the studio."
"When you have great talent, you can be quite silent," he says, going on to tell a story about an unnamed producer who would be sent out to get sandwiches "so that we could get some work done." The first in this series of Ferguson-produced Concord releases, this year's Christian Jacob, spotlights Jacob, a talented young pianist in a trio format along with Peter Erskine (drums, percussion) and John Patitucci (bass). Like "Bebop Buffet" off of Live From San Francisco, the agile and gently nuanced tunes on Christian Jacob show that--"MacArthur Park" and "Theme from Battlestar Galactica" notwithstanding--Ferguson has a deep understanding of jazz. The fact that many of his trademarks--Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon," "Birdland"--are now marching band standards may speak to some of a giant wedge of cheese, but it's more accurate to chalk these ubiquities up to Ferguson's musical populism, similar to that of Doc Severinsen (with whom he played years ago in Raeburn's band) and honed by years of dance-band gigs. He doesn't even begrudge "Gonna Fly Now" its place in his canon.
"It's nothing I dread," he says of the Rocky theme, although he doesn't play it as much any more. "Years ago, someone--I think it was Charlie Barnett--told me, 'Maynard, just remember one thing--never record a song you hate, because sure enough, God will punish you and make it your biggest hit, and forever after--no matter how well you play--someone will come up to you after the show and say, yeah, that was all right, but how come you didn't play so-and-so?'"